Review of Mary Grace, The Communion of Saints: Talking to God and Grandma (Phoenix: Tau Publishing, 2013)

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Communion of Saints

Communion of Saints (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

I had looked forward to reading this book since I am interested in the interface between faith and parapsychology. Since the doctrine of the communion of saints is the only major Catholic teaching that could be used to justify communication with the dead, I was interested in reading what Ms. Grace had to say.  For the reader’s information, I am a member of the Anglican Catholic Church, a conservative continuing Anglican church.

Unfortunately, the book was disappointing. If it had focused exclusively on the issue of the communion of saints and communication with the dead, it would have not only been shorter, but it would have been a stronger book. Ms. Grace used the book as a means to push her various theological agendas that are not in accord with Roman Catholic teachings. She affirms that all people are part of the communion of saints, which, contrary to what she states, has never been the teaching of Holy Scripture nor of the Church Fathers. It is possible that all people might be part of the communion of saints eventually, as von Balthasar notes, but it is also possible that some people obstinately reject God. To be a saint is to be set aside–Grace is quite correct is stating that the New Testament teaching is that all Christians are saints. The church also affirms this teaching, but it also affirms the belief that some Christians have sacrificed so much for God and their fellow human beings that the church as a whole can affirm that they are currently enjoying the Beatific Vision. That is not an elitist view, but it sets examples for us to follow. Nor does it deny that even the saints sinned–we are all sinners, despite Ms. Grace’s disclaimer in the book.

Ms. Grace supports a revision of the church’s holding that homosexual activity is sinful (the church has never said that the orientation itself is sinful). She also supports the ordination of women to Holy Orders. These are not matters for her to decide, and given that these involve essential moral and doctrinal teachings of the church, they will not change. The majority of the world’s Roman Catholics support both these doctrines–liberal American and European Roman Catholics do not have the right to publicly dissent from church teaching. Heresy is cruel since it can lead a person to rebel against God. It is out of love that the church sets boundaries to legitimate belief, and while theological speculation is allowed, open and public disagreement with the teaching of the church is (and should be) condemned.

Relating to her view of the afterlife, she holds that the Christian vision is for a non-physical existence. While I Corinthians 15 can be interpreted that way, it would be highly unusual for Paul, given his Jewish background, to de-materialize or de-physicalize the resurrection. Paul uses terms like “flesh” and “physical” to refer to the sinful, fallen part of nature. His affirmation of the renewal of all of nature in Romans 8 is not consistent with a total spiritualized resurrection. When Paul uses the term “spiritual body” in I Corinthians 15, he means “a body under the total control of its spirit.” He does not mean a non-physical, a non-material, or a non-physical body. Ms. Grace selectively quotes from the Christian tradition and ignores the statement in the Apostle’s Creed, “Credo in resurrectionem carnis“–“I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” Even Ms. Grace’s mother appeared to her in material form, in the form of a warm, solid, physical body. Glorified flesh is still flesh. While there may be a non-embodied intermediate state between death and resurrection, full human identity requires a body–I would refer the reader to the works of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Gilbert Ryle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty on the necessity of a body for full human identity. The soul is the “form of the body” (forma corporis), as Aquinas puts it–the body is for this soul and the soul for this body. A Platonic or Cartesian soul has no place in Christian theology.

Now as far as communication with the dead, the Catholic Church has traditionally been open to scientific study of phenomena such as electronic voice phenomena, apparitions, and other putative means of contact with the dead. It does accept the traditional strictures against mediums. That may well be a belief that the church would consider revising, but only after much study and much more scientific evidence comes in. Bishop Pike‘s statement that the Hebrew Bible’s condemnation of mediumship was only a power play by the Jewish priesthood is historically inaccurate. The problem was that mediumship was closely associated with Canaanite pagan practices. Issues concerning mediumship today include whether (1) mediumship can be decoupled from paganism and New Age pantheism, (2) whether mediums can avoid spiritual pride, and (3) whether the medium has the gift of discernment to distinguish between genuine communications from the dead and communications from demonic entities.

My own view is that if a loved one who has died comes to comfort the living (after death communication or ADC) that is almost certainly legitimate. The use of meditation to contact the dead is a matter for the church to decide–if practiced carefully and in line with other teachings of the church, this might be acceptable. The church rightly takes its time on such matters. As for mediums–if they are mediums out of love for others and wish to comfort them in their grief by putting them in contact with their loved ones, there is a possibility that the church might eventually change its mind on mediumship. However, that is unlikely given the great potential for abuse concerning a realm about which we know so little. My hope is that theologians would at least discuss these issues. Mary Grace’s book, while well-meaning, will likely drive those who are theologically orthodox away from discussing mediumship given developments in parapsychology–and this would be an unfortunate result indeed.

Mediums and Christianity

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Hypnotic seance

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How should a traditional Christian regard mediumship, the intentional contact with the dead? Probably most traditional Christians oppose mediumship, referring to its clear condemnation in the Hebrew Bible. It doesn’t help matters that some mediums make no secret of their hostility to Christianity (although others would consider themselves to be in the Christian tradition). I believe that genuine mediumship (as opposed to fake mediums who prey on the gullible by “cold reading” the speech and body language of sitters) can be reconciled with traditional Christianity if such a gift is used with care. The Hebrew Bible condemns mediumship because of its association with pagan religious practices in the ancient world, so those passages condemning it do not necessarily apply to Christian mediums. I am assuming throughout this post that some gifted mediums receive genuine messages from the dead rather than messages from the living through enhanced psi abilities (the so-called “super-psi hypothesis”). The case of the famous medium Mrs. Leonora Piper (1857-1950) convinced me beyond a reasonable doubt that a talented medium could communicate with the surviving personalities of persons who have died.

Everyone probably has some psi ability, whether that ability be telepathy (mind to mind communication apart from normal means), clairvoyance (receiving information from the non-human environment), or psychokinesis (PK, the ability to move objects using the mind alone). But some individuals are especially gifted in one or more of these skills. After all, not all of us have the same athletic skills, mechanical skills, or intellectual abilities–why should the situation be any different with psi? And since a medium would be communicating with the dead through psi, a good medium would have at least good telepathic abilities.

All talents, from a Christian point of view, are gifts from God over which we exercise a stewardship. We have a moral obligation to use whatever talents we have been given in a responsible way. For example, someone with the gift of persuasion might be able to sell snake oil and make a great deal of money, but this behavior would be a misuse of the talent God gave the person. A genuine medium may care only about money and overcharge clients, or may be seeking power from the dead. These are both bad motives for mediumship. Seeking power from the dead is more dangerous than money lust, since all power is of God and is given on loan from God–it should be used for His glory and not ultimately for our self-gratification or use to manipulate and dominate others.

The proper motive for using the talent of mediumship is to help people deal with their grief, and perhaps to remove barriers to their faith in an afterlife. Mediumship can only provide, at best, a kind of “natural knowledge” of the afterlife which should be completed by Scripture and the teachings of the Church. However, if knowing that a loved one is okay gives comfort to a grieving person, I see no problem for a Christian medium to contact the dead loved one for that reason. Or if someone who is agonizing over doubts about faith comes to a medium, the communication with the dead can at least remove one major barrier to accepting the fullness of Christian faith.

Such a gift should be used very carefully, with much prayer and with discernment. If the medium senses that the communicator may not be the person he claims to be, the medium should immediately break the link. Traditional Christianity accepts the existence of Satan and other fallen angels, who could try to twist what is a good gift into something that damages a vulnerable person. So mediums should tread with caution. But if they take proper precautions, pray, and practice their talent for the right motive, I do not see any reason why someone could not practice as a Christian medium.