Christianity and Parapsychology
By William V. Rauscher
We are faced with a number of key questions centering around the relationship between Christianity and Parapsychology; I shall present them, offer observations, and suggest a possible answer.
First - why is it that the Church suffers continuous attrition, while occult and Oriental ideas have experienced a marked increase in popularity?
Second - why is it that the Church encourages a dichotomy between itself and responsible, respectable seekers in the field of psychical research (parapsychology)?
Third - why has the Church failed to appreciate the obvious need for spiritual and mystical guidance - leaving the stage, as it were, to age-old meditation techniques that are dispensed from the vessels of Eastern faiths, rather than reviving the strong meditative and prayer traditions of Christianity itself?
The mystical content of Christianity is, and always has been, right below the so-called "organized elements, with their half-understood rituals, their overlays of bureaucratic and administrative rigidities, their petty everyday hypocrisies. It does not take much to scrape away these accretions that merely hide the beauty and inspiration just below the surface.
I know full well that many who are prominent in our churches fear that reckless psychic dabbling which goes directly counter to the concept of Christian spiritual disciplines. Yet, like any medicine, a controlled quantity is beneficial, while excess can lead to disaster. Any habit, even a good one, will become an addiction when it is overdone.
Above all, the great and beautiful tradition of Christian Mysticism must be seen as part of the existence for which we strive, and which we seek to recapture, revive, make part of this material century - at a time that teaches us just how limited the material really is, be it in energy, rainfall, arable land available for food supply, and even the resources of the sea. It is not hyperbole to speak of the fact that only one resource is truly inexhaustible and that is the Resource of the Spirit, the inner growth, the resource within each one of us, directly linked to mystical relation with Jesus.
My concern with the dichotomy between the psychic and the modern Church is powered by human tragedies, follies and fumbling that I observe every day. We are not concerned with the Big Questions as such, although the questions are definitely in the Big Question category. We are directly concerned with individual human problems, with people who are lost somewhere in the desert of our computer obsession, endless highways, their billboards, and single-level discount stores - that is the desert of our existence, the desert in which we are looking for an oasis.
Let us not accuse one another of being too egocentric, although I do not defend selfishness. I mean something else. I have heard and read the accusation that we have passed or are still in the midst of the "Me-Decade," a period in which we are all too concerned with our Selves - and in this manuscript I spell Selves with a capital "S." It is quite true that all the fads through which so many have passed during the years of spiritual escapism are centered on the individual. That has been true of the drug culture, with its "trips" into a brilliant but dangerous unknown within the human mind. It has been true of every passing fancy, from group therapy to all the schools of meditation. The whole consciousness-expansion syndrome is filled with the first person singular: I, I, I!
This, to me, is a cry of desperation. It is the direct descendant of the Literature of Alienation that has also been fashionable, but seems to have had its day. To be alone, to be alien, to want to expand one's consciousness with drugs or non-drug "trips" can easily fall into the category of psychic or psychological self-indulgence. But, believe me, it depends on how it is done - and the motivation is most certainly not beyond positive factors, beyond what in a wider sense, we might unhesitatingly call Redemption.
Where can we start in regaining spiritual and indeed mystical qualities, if not in ourselves? If as fathers or mothers we are not strong and whole, we cannot pass strength or wholeness on to our children; we cannot create the family unit - remember another fad phrase, "the nuclear family"? Maybe that is the individual cell from which the body of modern civilization has grown?
The "Me-Decade" is an appropriate characterization, as long as the "me" is part of the family, the community, and the wider responsibility that our living with one another demands.
What we need above all is honesty. That means honesty mainly with ourselves. It is difficult enough and we shouldn't confuse it with the artificial honesty in a group therapy session, where insulting one another is considered a healthy outlet for aggression, for getting the kinks out of your soul. It is difficult enough to be honest with one's self; and not without risk, because a measure of self-deception may be necessary to keep going to maintain hope.
Within the overall framework of the theme "Life, Death, and Psychical Research," the relationship between Christianity and Parapsychology has a very specific meaning.
You have heard of the work done by Drs. Raymond Moody and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and of the pioneering efforts in life-after-death research undertaken by Dr. Karlis Osis, Kenneth Ring, and many others. Frankly, their findings did not come as a surprise to me or, for that matter to hundreds of other clergy who have ministered to the dying. The death bed experiences which form the core of current interest in life-after-death research are common to those of us who have seen hundreds or even thousands move through the gate of death, with our presence, prayers and hopeful consolation.
We cannot talk about these matters, because our profession has an even stricter code of confidentiality than does that of the medical or law professions. But life after death is a reality that we have encountered numerous times. And it has given us a spiritual certainty that, I confess, may make us perhaps too matter of fact about the reality of an after-life. When we read or hear about the experiences from beyond, brought back by a patient who has been considered clinically dead but has been resuscitated - when we are told of such a case, we tend to say, "But of course, that is what happens!" We have seen men and women on their deathbeds, crossing and recrossing the frontiers between this existence and the next; they speak of visions, of friends and relatives in the world beyond, and even of encounters with the Deity itself.
I am not saying that this sort of experience is routine. But other clergy can doubtlessly testify that it is frequent enough for us to nod our heads when we hear researchers speak of the case histories they have collected from the dying and the seemingly dead. We, after all, speak the words, "Life Everlasting" not only more often but also with more direct comprehension than do most others. The intimations of that special reality, "Life After Life" as Dr. Moody calls it, are stronger in our profession than in almost anyone else - and I include physicians and nurses, whose orientation is not so much in making the transition from this life to a life beyond death a spiritually fulfilling one, but who must try to steer the patient away from the gate that leads to an existence beyond our present one.
We come to the theme of life and death with convictions of a specific kind. We welcome the efforts of the researchers, because they confirm our traditional concepts. A Christian who looks at parapsychology must have a special fondness for its researches, because the very things of which the Judeo-Christian tradition speaks involve psychical and parapsychological study. Our communion with Christ, and our loved ones, blends into the communion of saints, angels and archangels, the whole company of heaven, and the entire heritage of our mystical Jesus; everything related to it, in the world of the unseen has parallels in the studies of parapsychology. Parapsychological experiences, including telepathy and clairvoyance, need not be religious, but they most certainly have religious implications.
The Church has much to gain from these studies, and much to offer. Science, which was once called "faithless fact," and religion, which can be labeled "factless faith," have today found a meeting ground. John E. Bentley, late dean of American University in Washington, D.C., once stated, "Science walks with humble feet to prove the God that faith has found." The religion of only mere moralistic behavior is over. In this respect the religion of raging fundamentalism, even though it has experienced the activity of supposed charismatic influence, is still weighted down. Its burden is the denial of all inquiry into consciousness studies where even the word parapsychology or ESP reflects a devilish connotation to the mind of the modern day, born-again, Bible Belt Believer. Dr. J. B. Rhine, who developed modern parapsychology in this country and pioneered its methods for the whole world, has spoken in challenging terms of the relationship between Christianity and parapsychology. Rhine has observed that telepathy in its religious form comes close to prayer. He compares the capacity of seership and revelation to clairvoyance. And he sees the mind-over-matter phenomena of psychokinesis, or PK, as the equivalents of physical miracles of religious tradition - as he puts it, of "the miraculous powers that were believed to be conferred upon many by divine agency - as, for example, spiritual healing." Although I know of no ongoing major study or contribution to parapsychology in Judaism, we must conclude that both the Old Testament and New Testament are replete with references to paranormal happenings. These events may be interpreted in many ways, but the mystical tradition remains - especially when it involves topics such as angelogy and prophetic inspiration. Even worship must be viewed as a paranormal extra-sensory encounter and prayer itself, whether in the Temple, closet or the Cathedral, is essentially a non-physical activity taking into account the transcendental dimension.
Rhine said: "Physical conditions of space, time, barriers and instrumentation are all transcendent. This is rather closely identical to the characterization of spiritual exchange in religion. Whatever else spiritual means, it does definitely imply an extraphysical type of exchange. In fact this is the basis of the concept of the supernatural or miraculous in religion." It is the very thing now missing in a 21st century society with a non-miraculous mind set.
Rhine abandoned laboratory studies of life after death in the 1930's, when he discovered that the methods of parapsychology did not enable him to differentiate between messages from discarnate entities, or spirits, and the telepathic or clairvoyant impressions of the mediums he had as subjects in his laboratory at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Outside the laboratory, research with mediums and psychics has gone on. I well realize there are pitfalls in a non-spiritual approach to this kind of inquiry. Mediums and psychics are not made holy by the talents they show, any more than the character of a concert pianist or sculptor is ennobled by his talent.
Let us be quite clear about this. People can be psychic, but not necessarily spiritual. Many want to be psychic, but do not wish to adopt the ethics and spiritual disciplines which ought to accompany it. When someone wishes to be psychic, we should ask, "Why do you want this? What are your motives? What is your aim?" The path of psychic development twists and turns in many directions. It is easy to become lost in the forest of the unusual. Remember - it is easy to counterfeit the "gifts" of the spirit. It is more difficult to fake the "fruits" of the spirit.
Some questions which can serve as a guideline in respect to psychic and occult problems for clergy are well stated in a Report on Occult and Psychic Activities published by the United Presbyterian Church in the United States. It was prepared by the Advisory Council on Discipleship and Worship.
1. Does the psychic event or phenomenon lead us as total persons - heart, soul and mind to love the Lord our God, putting no other gods before him, and to love our neighbors as ourselves?
2. Does it witness to the sovereignty of God as the ultimate source of possibility, power, and resources, or is it egocentric and manipulative, concerned primarily with private power?
3. Does it honor God's chosen means of self-revelation; his Son, his Word, and his Spirit?
4. Does it honor God's creation, both nature and humanity, in terms of fostering wholeness, reconciliation, a posture of self-sacrificial servanthood rather than exploitation in both personal and societal terms? Are "the unlovable" and the enemy given at least equal status within this redemptive framework? Is human need, bodily as well as spiritual, an item of concern and action?
5. Is it open to the infinite variety of God's work in the world, with humble recognition that "His ways are not our ways," leaving room for unknowns, for natural and general revelation, whatever their faith, ethnicity or theology, providing they do not despoil the human or seek to subvert love and community?
6. Does it produce in the long run, the "fruits of the Spirit": love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
7. Does it promote humility, a recognition that we do not yet see God "face to face" but only "through a glass darkly," that much is yet incomprehensible or unknown, that we yet have much to learn and perhaps to relearn about his ways?
I once helped a former medium, who used an ecclesiastical front to make himself rich by defrauding the bereaved, the gullible, and those with an unquenchable will to believe. He name was M. Lamar Keene, and I was instrumental in having him publish his confessions of fraudulent mediumship in a book called The Psychic Mafia. The ultimate disgrace - and I use the word advisedly, meaning "a denial of Grace" - of this man's doing was that he utilized a Spiritualist Church with all the trappings of Christian worship; to gather vast sums of money with such means as walkie-talkies, see-through mirrors, skillful suggestion, and intricate psychological legerdemain. So when I express my impatience with fellow churchmen saying that they have closed their eyes to legitimate accomplishments of parapsychology - I well know the pitfalls, and probably better than most of them!
So much for not being quite humble. I do know that there must be safeguards, and that the Church has to be cautious. But you cannot develop effective safeguards against something you do not know about. You must know a disease in order to develop a method that will bring about immunity. If we are too cautious about the risks we encounter in daily life, we will not want to get out of bed in the morning, will not dare to descend a flight of stairs, and certainly refrain from crossing the streets! But that is not living. It isn't Spirituality, and it isn't Science, and it isn't within the tradition of Jesus Christ who dared the society within which he lived by what those of little faith, or none at all, saw merely as too novel, too presumptuous, too untraditional to even know about.
Individuals Of Daring
Of course, within a body as vast as the Church - the church of all denominations, or virtually all of them - there are individuals of daring. The history of psychical research would not be complete if it were not for clergy or lay people with religious interests. Much research in this field has been done in Great Britain. I am indebted to my late British friend, Canon John D. Pearce-Higgins, who in a paper on The Church and Psychical Research, pointed out that Catholicism has always had direct reference to an after-life, has "had a place both for the dead and for the supranormal." The continuing "belief in intercession of the saints, as well as the search for and investigation into alleged miracles has kept alive the sense of the interaction of the Church triumphant with the Church militant, and also stimulated an interest in the miraculous or paranormal." Another British authority, Renee Haynes, who was editor of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in London, made a detailed study of an eighteenth century cleric, Prospero Lambertini, whom she called the "father of Christian psychical research," and who became Pope as Benedict the Fourteenth. He linked parapsychological phenomena to religion, but distinguished carefully between the paranormal and the divine.
We have here in North America the struggling remains of Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship. I had the privilege of serving as the organization's President from 1964 to 1968 during its most productive years, when upwards of 2,000 people attended the Annual Conference. In England there still exists the Churches Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies, with which clergy are still affiliated. Both organizations continue a long tradition. One of the leading figures in the history of religion and psychical research was the Rev. William Stainton Moses, who published widely in the field, was founder and president of the London Spiritualist Alliance; edited the periodical Light, and was a co-founder of the prestigious Society for Psychical Research. I visited his graveside in the summer of 1974 at Bedford, England, and noted that his life on this level of existence lasted from 1839 to 1892. As I looked at the inscription on the gravestone of this Anglican priest, I was struck by the fact of how similar and contemporary are the thoughts, drives and energies of the nineteenth century to this day. Individuals are still moved to explore the uncharted inner worlds of consciousness. The custodians of "mystery" are many, and they all helped lead us to the present.
The very reason for the establishment of psychical research was the desire, deep in the hearts of distinguished scholars - women as well as men - to build a bridge between religion and psychical phenomena, without surrendering to the seemingly all pervasive materialism that threw its shadow over the second half of the last century. In a scholarly anthology edited by former astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, the man who walked on the moon during the Apollo 14 flight, a writer with extensive experience in parapsychology, Martin Ebon, provided an historic overview of the field. He notes that British psychic researchers began their work during a period of spiritual dilemma, brought on by Charles Darwin's findings on human evolution. The first President of the Society, the noted psychologist Dr. Henry Sidgwick, personified the motivation behind the organization's original research program. As Mr. Ebon puts it, Sidgwick was deeply concerned with human ethics and conduct of behavior. The basics of Christianity provided him with a strong motivation for thought and research in the field of the psychic.
A leading figure looming in this tradition was the Rev. Leslie D. Weatherhead, who died at the age of 82. He was a past president of the Methodist Conference, and from 1936 to 1960 he served as minister of the City Temple in London. He had this to say on healing, which I have earlier mentioned as one of the most crucial areas for our understanding and inquiry. These are Weatherhead's words:
"By healing is meant the process of restoring the broken harmony which prevents personality, at any point of body, mind or spirit, from its perfect functioning in its relevant environment; the body in the material world; the mind in the realm of true ideas; and the spirit in its relationship with God."
I want to draw your attention to the vast, and in many ways excellent, literature that exists in this field. Weatherhead's book Psychology, Religion and Healing, published years ago, can be read as an enriching experience today, and for decades in the future. And I am not just talking about reading such works as an individual. I feel that in study groups, and surely in Christian seminaries, such readings should take place as part of survey courses in the whole area of Christianity and Parapsychology. In my own book, The Spiritual Frontier, which was published in 1975, I took particular pleasure in compiling an extensive bibliography of suggested reading that took up nearly sixteen pages.
Our theological seminaries face the very obvious and relevant challenge of including parapsychology in their curricula. They must also place renewed emphasis on ascetical and mystical theology. At the very least, the clergy, who must meet the everyday world in which we live, should be well prepared to answer questions, hold study courses and deal in sermons on such themes as "Prophecy and Precognition," on psychosomatic elements and spiritual factors in healing prayers, on such faddist but important themes as exorcism, reincarnation, haunted houses, and everything from the Bermuda Triangle to the Apocalypse. Yes, they must preach the Gospel, but they must also interpret research in consciousness and place in perspective the various religious trends that can hinder or advance the seeker of truth. It certainly isn't satisfactory for the questioning mind to find reports on such alleged or real phenomena almost exclusively in sensational weekly tabloids - but the frequency with which such events are reported in the popular periodicals shows how extensive and deep the public's interest is.
Discoveries in parapsychology, for example, have been well publicized by the Stanford Research Institute, a private research organization in Menlo Park, California. Two physicists, Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, have published their findings on what they call "remote viewing" - what used to be called clairvoyance - in the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. They found "facets of human perception that appear to fall outside the range of well-understood perceptual or processing capabilities." They achieved high-quality remote viewing, of locations and distant objects, from experienced psychics as well as from inexperienced volunteers. These people more or less willed themselves to locate with their minds such things as roads, buildings, and laboratory apparatus. Fifty experiments, with half a dozen subjects, were undertaken.
Targ and Puthoff say that the precise nature of the information channel coupling remote events and human perception is not yet understood. They think that aspects of information theory, quantum theory and neurophysiological research "appear to bear directly on this issue." I think we can add that these physicists are treading on territory which, in setting and context, might well have been categorized as miraculous. Beyond doubt, not only such fields as neurophysiology have a bearing on research of this type, but it is also of the highest interest to anyone who looks upon physical aspects of spiritual and mystical experiences. The "seer" of our tradition has, one might presume, an equivalent in California physics laboratory - although, despite the palm trees in Menlo Park and the nearness of the Pacific Ocean, the edifice of the Stanford Institute is strictly secular.
I must answer the questions I asked at the outset, all of them to the point of why the Church is still hesitant to deal with parapsychology, even fearful of it. I think the answer is plain ignorance. Not only fear, fear of the unknown, plus just not knowing what is going on. We are not dealing with demons and witches, but with science, and with the deeper needs of the human soul of which we still know too little. And in much of what parapsychological research has found, the central significance is the incredible inter-relationship of all of us with one another - by telepathy on occasion and in startling terms, but in more subtle and less easily traceable ways presumably all the time.
No one can deny that there are pitfalls, and I think I have been quite plain about that. But I'd like to add to that as I summarize my views. It is, I am aware, only too easy to be impressed by what appear to be authentic psychic experiences, and to ignore alternative explanations. Psychic development pursued for the mere purpose of developing a talent is a form of vanity, and can be dangerous. One can be misled by false claims in advertisements; self-styled professional psychics encourage those who seek a substitute for unfulfilled emotional needs. Mentalists who appear on television and pretend to be psychics are sailing under false flags. Some people think they are experiencing "revelations," but chances are that delusions, obsessions and frustrations, neuroses and other forms of emotional disturbance may be at the core of these impressions.
Psychic or spiritual development should result in an integrated personality. That is why I want emphasis placed on prayer, meditation, contemplation and worship as stabilizing elements for a balanced inner life. Drugs are no shortcut to the psychic or true spiritual growth, but the road to delusion. Various devices, such as the Ouija board, the planchette and automatic writing can lead to a breakthrough of otherwise controlled volcanic subconscious forces; they are best avoided.
I stand, then, firmly in the middle. I favor detached study, patient inquiry within an appropriate spiritual framework. But I am against denial. I am against fear. I am against the arrogance of ignorance. It is as simple as that.