Christianity and the Paranormal

It's safe to say that many Christians have an ambivalent stance towards paranormal activity. Many Western Christians have been culturally conditioned to posit a stark dichotomy between two realms: the natural world, which they define in terms of the everyday, humdrum, physical reality we experience most of the time, and the supernatural world, more or less limited to God and angels. If they allow for the possibility in our day and age, they take miraculous healings and visions to be signs of God's direct intervention in human affairs, with immediate evidential value in arguing for Christianity. Further along towards the charismatic end of the spectrum, demonic influence and exorcisms may enter the picture.

This world-picture is problematized, however, by the fact that seemingly supernatural occurrences, including dramatic healings, visions of the departed, precognitive dreams, etc. are not confined to Christian saints or even Christians in general. In fact, they're not even confined to religious believers. Protestants have a hard time making sense of Marian visions and well-attested healings at Lourdes, while Christians in general have a hard time with miracle reports associated with mystics of other religious traditions, as well as supernatural happenings which seem to have no religious context whatsoever. If precognitive visions can only come directly from God, what was he doing granting one seemingly at random to a young woman several hours prior to an explosion at a chemical plant in Flixborough, England, which did not even result in any lives being saved, much less confirm anyone in their faith or achieve some other theological desirable?

In her book Apparitions, Healings, and Weeping Madonnas, Lisa J. Schwebel helpfully suggests that a more sophisticated approach to the paranormal is needed among Christians. Drawing on the insights of Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, the essence of her proposal is that, rather than being closely associated with God and the spiritual realm, the paranormal needs to be 'naturalized', and understood to be just as much a part of the 'ordinary' world we live in as rocks falling and plants photosynthesizing. In other words, in addition to distinguishing between 'ordinary' and 'extraordinary' or 'special' divine providence, we also need to distinguish between paranormal happenings and divine miracles, the latter being a subset of the former. It is not enough that something 'supernatural' happen in order to identify God's direct intervention. Based on our best evidence, paranormal happenings and abilities seem distributed without regard to religious affiliation or standing, suggesting that such abilities are 'natural' human faculties and not necessarily indicative of any special divine grace, manifesting instead whenever certain psycho-biological conditions are met.

Having 'demythologized' the paranormal so to speak, in the rest of the book Schwebel draws on parapsychological research to propose alternative explanations of some of the phenomena listed in the book's title. With regard to visions of the recently deceased, for example, she proposes a middle ground between their actual manifestation in some sort of ethereal body, which she finds hard to make sense of (why are the deceased wearing clothes? what are those clothes made of?) and dismissing them as hallucinations: telepathically induced visions in which the 'signal' comes from the mind of the departed person while the seer supplies the sensory environment and remembered images of the departed, who often appear as the seer remembered them from a previous time. A similar explanation may apply to visions of specifically religious figures, such as the Virgin Mary or other departed saints, where the departed mind is that of an ordinary person, while the communication is given a religious cultural context by the seer. Physical happenings such as weeping statues may be similar to poltergeist phenomena, often triggered subconsciously by a 'focal agent' nearby under the right conditions.

Schwebel also examines the relationship between precognition and prophecy, which I thought was one of the most fascinating and insightful portions of the book. Biblical prophecy is "rooted in a God-centered view of history, and their intent is a value-laden commentary on that history," whereas precognition is often just a fragmented glimpse of a (possible) future with no context or moral evaluation. Divine prophecy "involves communication, not merely representation; interpretation, not narration; integration, not fragmentation; moral direction in the present, not manipulation of the future. It preserves freedom; it does not bind people to a predetermined fate. It builds confidence and hope, not insecurity and despair." (pp. 99-100) Prophecy aims fundamentally at moral transformation and is a call to action, not just an announcement of future news stories.

If many phenomena formerly thought to be evidence of God's direct intervention instead turn out to be manifestations of 'natural' abilities, how can we recognize God's special action in the world, which we might define as divine action which displays God's presence and character in a more transparent way than ordinary events? Schwebel points us to an event's meaning and significance rather than its paranormal characteristics:
The origin of an event or the truth of a revelation is ultimately judged by the spiritual transformation (or lack of it) that results from it and not by examining its form or structure. If special events are events that mediate the relationship of God to the world, then any event can be experienced by a believer as an objectification of God's love and presence. It can be special. The fact that, over time, certain kinds of events seem to facilitate this experience more clearly than others, suggests that some aspects of God's original self-communication in nature are more evocative as signs than others, and also that human nature is so constituted by God as to be open to them...Whereas many people interpret special events based on a supposed divine intervention from the outside, Christians are directed to understand them within the context of God's original, all-encompassing, self-communication in grace." (pp.173-175)
Overall I found this to be an extremely helpful book on the relationship between Christianity and the paranormal. For one thing, it once again debunks the stereotype that the paranormal is only convincing to the gullible and those prone to wishful thinking. The truth is, as Schwebel documents, Christians have been some of the most erudite, sophisticated researchers of the paranormal, such as Pope Benedict the 14th who wrote four volumes on how to investigate miracles that could lead to canonization, drawing upon the best science and research of the day (Schwebel recounts a particularly amusing example of how he used common sense and Sherlock Holmes-style deduction to debunk one particularly silly alleged miracle).

I am not convinced by all her analyses and explanations of allegedly supernatural events, and I am not as confident as she is that all such events have analogues outside Christianity. It seem pretty clear, for example, that Jesus was a uniquely powerful healer and wonder-worker, even if healings occur outside the Christian context. However, I think she is right to call for the naturalization of the paranormal. Aside from the benefit of allowing Christians to study parapsychology and comparative religion without fear of the implications for their faith, it can also help us regain a sense of God's presence in everything that happens, not just 'special' events. There is a danger that, if we only view supernatural events as religious, we lose sight of the sacramental reality of the whole world as God's creation. Ultimately, Christianity is not an otherwordly religion. We are not to focus our attention on some spiritual realm, to the neglect of the earthly one. On the contrary, this is the world God cares about and this is the world in which he became flesh. While special visions and other signs and wonders can be uniquely powerful manifestations of God's presence and can be incredibly encouraging, ultimately they will serve their purpose if they turn us back to our everyday lives and activities with a renewed love of God and increased ability to discern His presence everywhere.


Patrick said…
“I am not convinced by all her analyses and explanations of allegedly supernatural events, and I am not as confident as she is that all such events have analogues outside Christianity. It seem pretty clear, for example, that Jesus was a uniquely powerful healer and wonder-worker, even if healings occur outside the Christian context.”

In general religious leaders outside (mainstream) Christianity do not even claim to be able to work miracles. This certainly applies to Buddha (Buddhism), Muhammad (Islam), Joseph Smith (Mormonism), or Charles Taze Russell (Jehova’s Witnesses), and L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology).

On the other hand, in the New Testament we can find references to experiences of miracles that amount to first hand testimonies of these events. They can be found in Romans 15,18-19, 1 Corinthians 12,9-10, 2 Corinthians 12,12 or Galatians 3,5. These passages wouldn’t make sense if no miracles or miracle-like events had happened. In addition they imply that the addressees of the respective letters had experienced such events, so there were quite a number of witnesses.

There is also evidence concerning Christian miracles from more recent times. Well-documented miracle accounts can be found in the following biography of the Lutheran pastor and theologian Johann Christoph Blumhardt:

Dieter Ising, Johann Christoph Blumhardt: Life and Work: A New Biography, Translated by Monty Ledford, Eugene 2009.

In the following excerpt from another biography of Blumhardt, written by his friend Friedrich Zündel (1827-1891), we find a description of the miraculous events surrounding Blumhardt’s work:

Another good source for Christian miracle accounts is the following work:
Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols., Grand Rapids 2011.

To these books can be added the following book containing a testimony of a healing miracle that happened about ten years ago:

Don and Jill Vanderhoof, From Strength to Strength: Our Testimony of God’s Healing, Greenville, SC 2002.

From the back cover:

“Don and Jill Vanderhoof and their two children, Ben and April, are church-planting missionaries in the country of Germany. In August 2000, Don was the human version of Mad Cow Disease. The diagnosis was made based on characteristic patterns of brain degeneration indicated on MRI brain scans and Don’s unmistakable symptoms. The Vanderhoofs were told that this disease is always fatal. This story is their testimony of God's healing.”

Prof. Dr. med. Dr. rer. nat. Harald Hefter, Assistant Medical Director of the Neurological Teaching Hospital in Düsseldorf (Germany):

“Nach klinischem Erscheinungsbild, Verlauf und Zusatzdiagnostik (...) war das Vorliegen der neuen Variante der Creutzfeldt-Jakob-Erkranung sehr wahrscheinlich, so dass (...) angesichts der aussichtslosen Prognose der zügige Rücktransport in die USA organisiert wurde.(...)

Als Herr Don Vanderhoof sich nach 1 1/2 Jahren gesund in unserer Klinik vorstellte, verbreitete sich die Nachricht von seiner Rückkehr wie ein Lauffeuer unter denen, die ihn zuvor betreut hatten. Alle waren über die nicht für möglich gehaltene Genesung sehr erstaunt.“


“According to clinical manifestation, progress and additional diagnostics (…) there was a high probability that we had the new variant of the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease before us, so that in view of this hopeless prognosis a speedy return journey to the USA was organized. (…)

When after one and a half years Mr Don Vanderhoof introduced himself again in our hospital while being in good health, the news about his return spread like wildfire among those who had taken care of him. Everybody was surprised at such a seemingly impossible recovery.”


In other religions evidence for miracles of this kind seems to a large degree if not completely be lacking. The following link may support this assessment:
On of my main hobby horses for years has been that Christianity forgot what supernatural means. We let the enlightenment philosohes redefine it for us. It never meant occult or pra normal happenings. It originally means the power of God to transform lives. Technically it's an ontology the pragmatic felt upshot of it is baptism of the holy spirit or mystical experience but not esp, ghosts, psychic powers, or such.
unkleE said…
Surely there are other possibilities to be considered when assessing miracles from other religions or none at all?

1. Many visions apparently given to Muslims are visions of Jesus and lead to conversions - see Visions of Jesus?. So that is consistent with christian belief.

2. God can do miracles outside christianity, surely - sort of rain for the just and unjust.

3. Most christians believe in some form of evil spiritual; forces, so these could counterfeit God's work.

None of that means that the book isn't helpful, only that it may not cover all possibilities. Thanks for the review.

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