Methods of “Expanding Consciousness” and Christianity

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digital-drugs-binaural-beatThis past Saturday I spent a day at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina. Paul Radamacher, Director of the Monroe Institute in Virginia, played some CDs designed to induce expanded consciousness. That expanded consciousness might be as dramatic as an out-of-body experience, or it could be a slight time distortion. My own experience was of near timelessness–in the last session, which lasted 45 minutes, I felt as if only a minute or two had passed. It was similar to waking up after anesthesia, but I did not fall asleep during that final session (I cannot say the same for the others!). The sense of relaxation was such as I have never felt before. My wish was to be able to talk with my friend Karen B., who died in May of 2010. So I prayed that “With Thy permission, God, could you allow me to see and talk to my friend Karen today?”

Although I did not have an experience of Kar during the sessions, I did have a dream that night. I was walking beside Kar, and I put my arm on her shoulder, which was strong, muscular, again (she had been an athletic woman). We sat down, I looked into her eyes, and she talked about her friends who still lived–I do not remember the content of the conversation, only her love and concern. I prayed, “God, why must she stay dust–could You keep her this way and bring her back to earth?” Kar looked at me with a look of such love and concern that it felt as if my grief was breaking her heart. It was a sense of unconditional love engulfing me.

I do not know whether my experience was just a dream or an actual visitation by Kar. All I know is that I felt comforted when I awoke, and I was thankful to God for allowing such an experience. Mass was especially meaningful as I contemplated the resurrection of the dead.

One question about methods of “expanding consciousness” is whether they are compatible with Christianity. I would say that they are as long as they do not lead a person away from orthodoxy and as long as a Christian is only using the experience as a means to an end rather than as the end itself. Some people worship the experience or the method of gaining the experience, and this is a form of idolatry.  No one should boast about a transcendent experience, but instead use it to build the faith of those with doubts, and in the case of my experience, to give comfort to those people bereaved of Kar and to those people in general who have doubts about an afterlife. Any transcendent experience is a gift of grace by the permission of God, and God should be praised and thanked for His precious gift. Experiences should also be tested by the light of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason to make sure that they are compatible with the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. With these precautions in mind, I would recommend the Monroe Institute’s programs or other programs for “expanding consciousness” for traditional Christians as long as they are used in the proper way, and with the realization that any transcendent experience remains the gift of God’s grace.

The Joy of Learning

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For Erin

Image by Kevin H. via Flickr

Every book is an adventure, every museum a doorway into other times and places, every zoo an opportunity to see other creatures, with their own unique qualities, in action. I remember being so happy in first grade when the two books from the Scholastic Book Club came: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel and Harry the Dirty Dog. That was 1969 and both those books sit on a bookcase I built in ninth grade shop. I remember being lost in the stories, and over the years being lost in many more stories: King Solomon’s Mines, From the Earth to the Moon, a collection of Edgar Allen Poe stories, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and many more fiction books that, like doors to other dimensions, were paths to different worlds. And then there were the nonfiction books: science books, mainly, about astronomy, volcanoes and earthquakes, dinosaurs, lands of the Bible, and so much more since then. There is a joy in every new book, every new experience, a raging curiosity to know that is only temporarily satisfied but never quenched.

There are some young people today who have that same kind of joy, an ecstasy of filling one’s mind with knowledge. However, many other students were never encouraged by their parents or by their schools to think of learning as a joy. Lost in a world of video games, their imaginations are stimulated but without gaining much knowledge. Excellent hand-eye coordination does not make up for ignorance. Where I teach, at Methodist University, we have a university-wide program, “Get Between the Covers,” that encourages students to read. Some students have discovered the joy of reading through that program. I have taken students on field trips to the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina, the premier research center for parapsychology, and they have enjoyed the chance to learn about a field with which they were not previously acquainted. If only those of us who are teachers could communicate the happiness in learning for learning’s sake–learning not only for some utilitarian purpose (although that is useful) but learning only to find adventure and fulfillment in other worlds. Movies are great, but they lack the detail of books, and museums, zoos, and parks can allow students to experience history, biology, and nature in a way that no movie could express.

If only everyone had this joy–something children have with their natural curiosity but is lost too often with adulthood. Students would learn exponentially more material, and they would try to get as much knowledge as they could, even from boring teachers. I had some boring teachers in college myself–I read the textbooks and tried to learn as much as I could–and still enjoyed the learning experience. People of all ages could go out and explore nature, perhaps with a field guide to trees or to wildflowers. People could go to a fossil bed to hunt fossils–some places have free fossil hunts. Parents are overworked these days, but they should still find time to model the love of learning for their children. This does not mean that everyone should be an intellectual–a mechanic may find joy in learning about race car engines and design even if he never plans to work on one. One could be a hobbyist–build models, collect coins or stamps. Everyone has the opportunity to expand his world if only he will make the effort, for at the end of the road lies a city of gold, a treasure in the mind that no one can take away.

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.