Thursday, September 18, 2008

Some thoughts on Christianity and parapsychology

What should Christians think about parapsychology? The Bible itself is chock-full of stories of parapsychological happenings, including dream visions, summoning of the dead, etc. In certain liberal Christian circles it is not fashionable to take these stories seriously anymore, or to hold that such things might actually happen today. I think that parapsychology is very important to the Christian faith. Visions and paranormal happenings should be taken seriously as intimations of contact with a spirit realm (see Philip H. Wiebe's excellent books,Visions of Jesus and God and other spirits). It is also, however, worth reflecting on how a Christian view of parapsychology differs from certain other popular views in Western culture.

First of all, in the Judeo-Christian view human beings generally do not have the ability to 'see' into the spirit realm on their own. Such occurrences generally involve an initiative from the spirit world itself. In several accounts God is said to 'open the eyes' of a person so that they can see into the spirit world (see for example the story of Balaam and the angel, Numbers 22:31 and the story of Elisha's servant, 2 Kings 6:15-17). Joseph in Egypt is adamant that the interpretation of Pharaoh's dream "is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace" (Genesis 41:16). An implication of this is that the 'standard' arts of divination, magic, etc. are strongly frowned upon in the Hebrew Bible. There's no room for 'holy technicians', in Robert Alter's phrase, who can 'tap into' holy energies and use the Spirit of God for their own purposes. Even the prophets, who consistently reveal the Word of God, only do so as inspiration comes upon them.

Much parapsychological research today, however, centers around detecting alleged powers of the mind, which the holder can tap into at will. A Christian would expect this evidence to be ambiguous (as indeed it is), because of the above. A Christian would expect that paranormal happenings would be sporadic (because the initiative comes from 'the other side') and ambiguous (because not all persons are granted the grace to 'see' into the spirit world). Thus the findings of parapsychology, and skeptical critiques of them for that matter, are precisely what we should expect if theism is true. Evidence of paranormal powers in general (such as telekinesis, etc) would not necessarily count as evidence for the truth of theism.

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