Survival Research and Culturally-Based Conclusions

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I have just returned from an excellent talk presented by Dr. Pamela Rae Heath, a medical doctor and leading researcher in parapsychology, at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina. She spoke on a number of issues in mind-matter interaction (MMI) or what is also termed psychokinesis (PK). I was pleased that her talk, while containing some of her conclusions that go beyond current evidence, was for the most part based on the best current research in parapsychology.

However, prior to her talk, I browsed her book, Handbook to the Afterlife. The quality of her talk was a surprise given the loose extrapolation from the survival evidence I saw in her book. Basically, life after death is envisioned as a process of personal growth that parallels growth and development (at least mental and spiritual development) in the present life and which includes a reincarnation component. This goes way beyond the actual survival evidence and was based, to some extent, on “channeling.”

How could someone give a scholarly presentation to the lay public and yet have a book that would fit into any fluff-brained New Ager‘s library? I fear that Dr. Heath was guilty of the same thing of which she accuses religious interpreters of MMI–that they interpret their experiences in terms of their cultural expectations. Now if Dr. Heath said, “That’s okay–we cannot avoid cultural expectations when interpreting data,” I would have no problem. But she seemed to assume (and I may have misunderstood) that parapsychological lacks such cultural expectations when it examines the data. That is simply false, and when we are dealing with survival research, cultural assumptions are unavoidable.

Take Dr. Heath’s position on the afterlife. It fits well into the American idea of evolutionary progress which has continued, unlike in Europe, to heavily influence American thought. Europe has suffered through two World Wars on its soil; America has 9-11, which was but one attack, and the War Between the States, which is distant to most Americans. Thus Americans buy into the idea of progress–and a life after death of continual evolutionary progress fits into American culture. The notion of multiple reincarnations, which in Eastern religions is something to be avoided if possible, becomes a positive thing in American New Age thought. A Hindu or Theravada Buddhist would be horrified by the American New Age interpretation of reincarnation.

I will be the first to admit that I am biased against reincarnation. As an orthodox Anglican Christian, I cannot accept reincarnation unless the evidence for it were so overwhelming that only a fool would reject it. That is not currently the case, even with Ian Stevenson‘s research. Stephen Braude has pointed out serious methodological flaws with the Stevenson research (for which see his book Immortal Remains). The problem of super-psi also plagues survival research; it seems to me that the best mediumship evidence (Leonora Piper‘s readings, for example) and the best near-death experience cases support at least a minimal survival of death of the individual personality in some form. But this does not justify a specific picture of the afterlife, at least at this stage of the research. Current research would be incompatible with non-survivalists and with the “no-self” view of Theravada Buddhism in which only five aggregates survival with no survival of the self. Beyond that, the research paints a picture of survival that is compatible with some Jewish views, some Christian views, with Pure Land Buddhist views, and even with the American progressive view that Dr. Heath espouses. But the evidence does not clearly support one of those views over another. For me, the evidence is a preparation for faith–it removes a barrier to my acceptance of the full Christian revelation on life after death. For Dr. Heath, the evidence supports a more “secular” or “natural” developmental view of life after death in which we evolve to higher levels of human accomplishment, with reincarnation being a part of that process. My point is that both Dr. Heath and I, to some extent, interpret the survival evidence in terms of our own cultural expectations. To expect that anyone could do otherwise is naive.

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.