Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Speaking to the Dead

Why is it, that really for the first time in human history, or at least in western Christian civilization, in upstate New York in the 1840s, large numbers of people started to claim the ability to talk to the dead? Certainly people had tried to speaking to the dead before, and speaking to ghosts and the summoning of spirits has a long history. But with the rise of spiritualism, this became a pursuit not left to occultists and would-be practitioners of the dark arts, but a common middle class practice. Pay a spiritualist, attend a séance, rap on a table, and chat with your dead grandfather or mother.

Why not? It seems to me that religion comes down to two basic principles. One, that there is a God, a ground of all being, a principle of unity for all things, or what have you. And two, that somehow and in some way, death is not final, and that its barrier is permeable. And most religions offer some promise of continued existence, bodily or spiritually, after our physical beings are no more. But the possibility of life after death is of no use to people who are still alive, and immortality, for the vast majority of us who want to stay alive as long as possible, is a rather meager compensation for dying. But survival after death gains a practical utility for the first time when you gain the ability, while still living, to speak to those who already have died. And since, when you get down to it, most people don’t really care what happens to them after they are dead (after all, you’re dead), an ability to speak to the dead while still alive is one of the greatest consolations that religion can provide, giving some evidence that death is a transition, and its awful, terrible, finality can be tempered. As for me, God seems like a paltry thing, a glorified philosophical argument, and one I would gladly forsake, if I had one more chance to speak to those, beloved to me, who have departed this life.

But despite a promising start, spiritualism never really caught on, and remained marginal to American religious culture. The standard histories provide several reasons for this. Spiritualism saw itself as basically a phenomena of post-Christianity, a rational way to demonstrate immortality. This raised the ire of the churches, and it never quite became incorporated into mainstream American Protestantism. It operated basically as a “fee for service” therapy (a forerunner of psychotherapy and similar therapies paid for by individuals for private or group sessions) rather than a church and never developed a strong institutional basis. It was easily falsifiable, its claims unproveable, despite the heroic efforts of psychic researchers, and was plagued by charlatans. For all these reasons, spiritualism has retreated to a small and not particularly respected corner of American religious and spiritual consciousness, and perhaps deservedly so.

Oh, I don’t really think that we live on as spirits after we die, but I certainly don’t believe that it is any more implausible than the belief that there is an superintending intelligence that is planning and watching everything that has ever happened or ever will happen, and I am annoyed that certain types of spiritual beliefs are regularly ridiculed (new age spirituality, Mormonism), while if we are unsympathetic to the core beliefs of Christian evangelicalism (biblical inerrancy, creationism) we are criticized for our secularism, and told we need to hold our noses and get along with conservative Christians.

The science section of the Times yesterday had a pretty incomprehensible article yesterday on the latest cosmological theories of multiverses and big bang inflations, and I read it three times and still didn’t understand it, but the upshot seemed to be that some cosmological models favor the existence of disembodied spirits and reincarnation. Perhaps, but in any event, I think the possibility of some form of continued existence after death is probably the original religious belief, and perhaps the core and most fundamental of all religious beliefs. Proclaiming that people can speak to the dead is perhaps New York State’s single most important contribution to the world’s store of metaphysical speculation, and as a loyal New Yorker I hope (though not on the basis of any logical or rational knowledge or conviction) that the spiritualists knew what they were talking about.

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