Erik Strandness explores how we should respond to supernatural phenomena in response to an Unbelievable? show about paranormal activity, such as near-death experiences, angels and ghosts
Celtic spirituality speaks of “thin places” where natural and supernatural worlds come together separated by only a thin veil. We tend to think of these thin places as geographical locations, such as the Isle of Iona in Scotland or Lourdes in France but what if we need travel no further than a haunted house? What if near-death experiences, angels and ghosts are manifestations of a supernatural world trying to squeeze through a thin place? Are these phenomena real and how should a Christian respond to them? These questions were addressed on an episode of Unbelievable? earlier this year by Matt Arnold, editor of the Christian Parapsychologist Journal and Dr Cal Cooper, a psychologist and paranormal researcher.
Dead men tell tales
Cooper considers himself a sceptic, but is careful to define scepticism as “critical inquiry within your own field”. He has no patience for a general scepticism that dismisses data just because it conflicts with one’s reigning worldview, but is committed to a rigorous investigation of these claims within his area of expertise. He doesn’t doubt that people have these unusual experiences, but wants to take it to the next level and determine whether they represent a true spiritual encounter or a neuro-physical process that just happened to take on some spiritual baggage.
Arnold, a Christian, is less sceptical of the supernatural in general, but similarly believes these events should be thoroughly investigated before one accepts their veracity. His major concern is how best to understand these reports within a Christian worldview. Both men, not content to whistle past the graveyard, dig in and exhume these supernatural experiences to give the spirits the opportunity to speak for themselves because in their paranormal world dead men do in fact tell tales.
Shaving with Occam’s razor
In 2018, Cooper was a runner-up for The Skeptic magazine’s Ockham’s Razor Award given out for sceptical activism. William of Ockham famously put forth what has been affectionately called Ockham’s razor, which assesses the viability of competing hypotheses by asking which one makes the fewest assumptions. His dictum, however, gets a bit tricky when discerning between material and immaterial explanations because they operate by different sets of rules.
We therefore need to be very careful not to give ourselves too close a shave when we get paranormal food stuck in our metaphysical beards because it may eliminate the possibility of a mystical five o’clock shadow.
The skinny on the thin places
Why are humans so intrigued with these thin places? Why do we place drinking glasses against the supernatural wall in hopes of hearing some juicy ghost gossip? On the flip side, why does the netherworld seem so keen on making itself known? Why distract matter in motion with spiritual detours? It appears that thin places aren’t just locations we go to to touch the supernatural but also spaces where the supernatural tries to grab our attention.
I find it interesting that in a world where the spiritual realm has been largely banished to the nether regions, we continue to hunger for close encounters of the third, fourth and fifth kind. Disappointed by a culture that tells us to follow the science, we push back, channel our inner Shakespeare, and declare: “There are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Ironically, disappointed by a materialist explanation for life we enter the magical world of the cinema to get a grip on reality. Cinemas end up being places of worship where the spiritual realm is still allowed to take up residence. Despite the best efforts of materialists to push spirituality out of public view, the entertainment industry is more than happy to put it on the big screen.
As it turns out, spirituality isn’t a vestigial organ from our superstitious past, but a vital part of our human physiology, and even if you take the supernatural out of our human vernacular it just shows up under a new moniker because a ghost by any other name is still a ghost.
The reality of fantasy
Why are horror films so popular? Contrary to our postmodern worldview, where all truth is relative and the line between good and evil is difficult to discern, horror films give us a refreshing reminder that evil does exist, and that it is in fact quite horrible. While the mental capacity of the teenage heroes in these movies are usually several demons short of a minion, they understand that evil is bad and needs to be vanquished, or at least suppressed to make room for the next sequel.
In a perverse sort of way, the movie industry makes it clear that the world is not relative, and good and evil do exist. Isn’t it strange that the secular world needs to periodically enter a theatre to escape the absurdity of its postmodern worldview? The world has lost its moral compass and oddly enough finds that the only place it can go to regain its bearings is the movies.
“In a world where juries excuse the inexcusable, where psychologists explain away the most inexplicable evils, people are groping for a kind of realism that they find, ironically, in fiction.” (Charles Colson)
Biblical thin places
Arnold wants to understand these experiences in light of scripture and reviewed several unusual biblical events to see if they could shed any light on paranormal activity. One of the most fascinating stories is of King Saul, the medium of Endor and the deceased prophet Samuel found in 1 Samuel 28:3-25.
Saul had previously cast out all the mediums and necromancers from the land, but when he was confronted with God’s apparent silence after questioning the Lord about an upcoming battle, he turned to a medium to conjure up the spirit of Samuel. What are we to make of this story? What Saul did certainly wasn’t sanctioned by God but he did encounter Samuel through a medium.
While this story is certainly strange, we also have other biblical stories of thin places, such as Moses meeting God in the burning bush, the Chosen People encountering God in pillars of smoke and clouds, and the disciple’s mountaintop experience of seeing Jesus transfigured with Moses and Elijah. How should we understand the experiences of friends and family who report encounters with the dead in light of these biblical stories?
Proceed with caution
Are these paranormal thin places religious experiences with half the calories or should they be a part of our Christian diet? The events of greatest interest to the guests were those that involved encounters with the deceased, which shouldn’t be completely unexpected if one believes the soul lives on and will one day be resurrected.
I think the real concern is not the spiritual world touching the physical world, but rather our physical attempts to gain access to the spiritual world through things like tarot cards, Ouija boards, and séances. It’s easier to vet the spirits when they arrive with a calling card than having an open border policy where you have to do background checks on every spirit you let in.
Journalist Ross Douthat, in a recent column entitled ‘Be Open to Spiritual Experience. Also, be Really Careful’, isn’t opposed to spiritual experimentation but warns us to proceed with caution.
“But precisely because an attitude of spiritual experimentation is reasonable, it’s also important to emphasise something taught by almost every horror movie but nonetheless skated over in a lot of American spirituality: the importance of being really careful in your openness, and not just taking the beneficence of the metaphysical realm for granted.
If the material universe as we find it is beautiful but also naturally perilous and shot through with sin and evil wherever human agency is at work, there is no reason to expect that any spiritual dimension would be different – no reason to think that being a ‘psychonaut’ is any less perilous than being an astronaut, even if the danger takes a different form.”
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Testing the spirits
As Douthat stated, you cannot take “the beneficence of the metaphysical realm for granted”, therefore you must test the spirits. What is testing? In science it is the process of taking an immaterial theory and seeing if it is physically relevant. Spiritual testing is no different, it similarly asks whether the noumenal has left a phenomenal footprint, but it measures it not by data but by the fruit it produces. So, let’s go to the orchard and taste and see if the fruit is good and whether it is grown on a Jesus vine.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” (1 John 4:1-2)
While we need to be cautious of the paranormal outside our churches, we must also exercise caution within our own sanctuaries. In Christian circles we tend to give people a free pass when they say they received a word from the Lord, but these claims must also be rigorously tested because we don’t want to get deceived by a counterfeit “thin place” cloaked with a “Holy Spirit” veneer.
The apologetic weight of thin places
What are we to do with sincere Christians who claim to have had an encounter with the dead? Peter, James and John encountered a deceased Moses and Elijah on the mount where Jesus was transfigured, so isn’t it possible for a Jesus follower to encounter a dead relative? Jesus made it clear to the disbelieving Sadducees that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that he is not the God of the dead, but of the living. So, if the deceased are truly living then what type of interactions are they capable of?
Arnold suggested that one of the reasons for the popularity of alternative spiritualities is the unwillingness or inability of the Church to acknowledge and explain supernatural experiences such as encounters with the dead.
“Rather than going to the priest and the priest dismissing it and saying ‘It’s all in your mind, go and see the psychologist or psychiatrist’, they were actually saying ‘no, I saw my dead son, I saw my dead father, they told me something’. The reality of what they were experiencing was taken away by the priest, but they actually found validation sadly in the spiritualist church…I think we have to listen carefully to the experiences that Christians have been having about this as well and say ‘these aren’t all demons’.” Matt Arnold
Maybe we’re looking at these events the wrong way. Maybe near-death experiences should be viewed as near-eternal life experiences and encounters with the dead as rendezvous with the still living. Rather than dismiss these experiences, Arnold encourages a pastoral approach.
“So, you have to listen to them, and you have to have that pastoral element that says ‘I believe that you saw something’ and deal with it from that perspective.”
When I counselled parents about the death of their baby, my reassurance was always spiritual in nature because ultimately bereavement isn’t about the loss of a biological being but the moving on of a soul, not about closing a casket but about opening a tomb. Grief becomes manageable when there is hope of future contact, and if a person has a thin place encounter with the deceased then maybe it is a grace and not a haunting.
During the show, Justin Brierley pointed out that exploring the paranormal without guard rails can create a spiritual wild west, so we need a sheriff in town to bring it under control. As Christians, we have such a guardian in the Bible, a book which doesn’t shy away from the paranormal but encourages us to rigorously test it.
We cannot just dismiss thin places because even Jesus gets restless now and then and steps off his throne to knock on doors. Do we explain it away as wind-blown branches banging against the house or do we get up and answer it? Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t limit himself to a door-to-door campaign, but also makes appearances in such “thin places” as the hungry, imprisoned, naked and sojourner. The world is skinnier than we think, and while ghostbusting may intrigue us, all we really need to do is to extend hospitality to a stranger because when we do we get the opportunity to entertain an angel.
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.