Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Blurry Lines: Religion and the Paranormal

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, it was dark, anyway. And Halloween. Walking along the edge of a cornfield, I kept hearing vague, rustling sounds until a shadowy figure darted between two trees. My breath caught and my heart skipped a beat.

Years later, in the sparsely populated mountains of Idaho, I sat on a bench outside my family's summer rental, watching a beautiful sunset. A sparkling object caught my eye. It flickered slightly green, appeared to remain stationary, and then, after I'd turned away for a moment, disappeared. Again, my breath caught and my heart skipped a beat.

Whatever either of those things actually were, my response was the same: a mixture of fear, excitement, and awe, all based on the possibility that I was in the presence of something unearthly, or at least well outside my mundane experience. Reading and watching television programs about UFOs and mysterious creatures like Bigfoot has been a guilty pleasure since I was quite young, so I am familiar with the hushed tones supposed witnesses of such phenomena use to describe their purported encounters. (If you'd like some background, or would just enjoy reading Bigfoot and UFO stories, check out the site for the North American Bigfoot Search and the Mutual UFO Network.)

As a scholar of Religious Studies, the dedication with which some people have searched for proof of such phenomena, combined with their sometimes rather reverential language, has made me wonder something: can belief or experience in the paranormal classify as "religious"? Perhaps owing to my background in Philosophy, I have always been interested in how humans define and classify. (For example, in past Blog posts I've interrogated the concepts of "Great Books" and "World Wars.") Students in my "Introduction to World Religions" courses over the years became accustomed to this conversation, as we debated whether the "Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" (aka, "Pastafarianism") or even the twenty-first century cult of celebrity worship (as argued in this article) could be considered religions alongside Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and the other "usual suspects" one finds in mass produced textbooks. What about the Sasquatch? Could a person's supposed encounter with Bigfoot be considered a religious experience, and his or her subsequent devotion to finding more hairy bipeds count as a religious practice? Who could say "no" to a face like this?

Just about every scholar of Religious Studies is given Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy as first year reading, and Otto's concept of the experience of the divine as mysterium tremendum et fascinans ("the mystery before which one trembles, in both fascination and fear") is a perfect description of classic textual descriptions of encounters with the divine. Think of Job from the Hebrew Bible, seeing God in the whirlwind (depicted by William Blake):

Or Arjuna before the Bharata War, seeing Krishna in his true shape as "Death, the Destroyer of worlds":

Though certainly he never intended it as such, couldn't Otto's mysterium tremendum apply to someone's experience of or belief in the paranormal? From a more skeptical angle, cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer lumps gods, ancestors, angels, and demons into the same category as aliens and Sasquatches, arguing in his book Religion Explained that concepts of divine beings and folkloric entities are all "parasitic" (his word) on the evolutionary process that gave homo sapiens the ability for abstract thought and language. In other words, our ability to picture a piece of fruit when we read the word "apple" leads us to imagine other things that aren't really there - like angels and Yetis. From the other side, Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University takes the paranormal as a very serious field of study within the realm of Religion, publishing several books (such as Authors of the Impossible and Mutants and Mystics) that trace how the paranormal partakes of the same structures and beliefs in human potential that characterize the traditions one normally finds in the textbooks. Last year he even coauthored a book with Whitley Streiber, a famous claimant of alien abduction.

Back in my graduate school days, I made the tentative assertion in a seminar on the concept of "Sacred Space" that perhaps one could define Roswell, New Mexico (long held by many to be the site of a UFO crash) or the Pacific Northwest (believed by others to be home to Sasquatch, North America's woodland ape), or even one's living room during an airing of Unsolved Mysteries as sacred space due to the blurriness of our categories for religion. Peter Williams, the professor for the course, responded in his characteristic fashion (which I still recall word-for-word): "Michael, I humbly suggest that you get a life." (Peter and I got along very well. It was actually his house and his dogs I was watching when I had my nerve-rattling experience reading Dracula.)

To a degree, I agree with Peter. What did I see near that cornfield? Almost certainly a deer, or maybe a raccoon. What did I see in the Idaho sky? Probably a plane from a strange angle. What these things really are or were is less important to me than the feeling of awe and wonder they generated and the sense that there was a vast, infinitely mysterious universe out there. To quote Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth...than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (Act 1, Scene 5). For that reason, you won't blame me if I curl up on the couch tonight for a few episodes of Unsolved Mysteries.

For next time, I might write something about Zen and the healing properties of meditation. Until then, take care, and may all your trees hide Sasquatches.


  1. I wonder if a problem with religions is experiencing the mysterium tremendum and then attempting to quantify it, if the attempt to anchor the mystery or even make use of it has been our problem?

  2. Otto also calls this experience the "numinous," which by definition he says cannot be put into words. So quanitfying and qualifying are both problems. Is it even possible to talk about religious experience at all?

  3. The impossibility doesn't seem to stop people though. But this is why so me accounts of the divine defy description and invite the idea that the mystic may be mad, why the mystics words almost make no sense, Ezekiel's Merkavah, Hildegard's vision of the Blue Christ, or Ramanujan's math equations being delivered to him by the Goddess Lakshmi in the drops of blood. This must be why in Zen it is simply stated that ultimate truth cannot be conveyed through speech.

    1. Those are great examples, and your line of thinking points to why I've been wanting to write a post about Zen for a while now.


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