Archive for Theology

Plato on Ghosts

Posted in Commentary, History, Investigations with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2014 by S. P.
Plato (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Plato (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

With the spirit realm we are dealing with the completely immaterial. This is the realm of the pure intellect. The rational beings which inhabit this realm include God, angelic beings (angels and demons), and human souls separated from their physical body. These beings have absolutely no material element whatsoever; no parts whatsoever. They are not “energy” since energy is a material phenomenon – in many cases, such as with electromagnetic radiation, we cannot see the energy with our bare eyes, yet it nevertheless remains a thing of the physical realm. Thus, beings of pure spirit cannot be called “energy;” however they do have existence and we are able to study and learn about this existence. While the natural sciences are, by definition, mute on nonmaterial things, we do have two sciences which directly study the immaterial: theology and philosophy. Theology used to be known as the “queen of the sciences” and Aristotle tells us that philosophy, particularly metaphysics (the study of being as such) and epistemology (the study of how we know what we claim to know), establishes the foundation from which all the natural sciences operate. Therefore, these are the sciences to which we should turn in order to learn more about the realm of the immaterial and what it means for an immaterial being to exist.

Perhaps it comes as a surprise to some, but the great ancient philosophers were not silent on the subject of “ghosts.” For example, in his dialogue of Socrates called the Phaedo, Plato specifically mentions how “ghosts” come to exist. Plato held to an idealist epistemology which viewed the world we inhabit as a “reflection” of the actual and unchanging world of “ideals.” Consequently, while holding to belief in the existence of an immaterial and immortal soul, Plato saw the physical body as merely the “container” or indeed the “tomb” of the soul. Death of the physical body “releases” this immaterial soul.

Having been “freed” from the body, the soul’s progress then depends on its connection to the physical world. The soul of a person who did not overly connect himself to the physical world is essentially “freed” of the physical world: “If [the soul] is pure when it leaves the body and drags nothing bodily with it, as it had no willing association with the body in life, but avoided it…A soul in this state makes its way to the invisible, which like itself, the divine and immortal and wise, and arriving there it can be happy, having rid itself of confusion, ignorance, fear, violent desires, and the other human ills and, as is said of the initiates, truly spend the rest of time with the gods.”[1]

What about the soul of the person who did not work in life to “detach” himself from the physical world? “But I think that if the soul is polluted and impure when it leaves the body, having always been associated with it and served it, bewitched by physical desires and pleasures to the point at which nothing seems to exist for it but the physical, which one can touch and see or eat and drink or make use of for sexual enjoyment…We must believe, my friend, that this bodily element is heavy, ponderous, earthly, and visible. Through it, such a soul has become heavy and is dragged back to the visible region in fear of the unseen and of Hades. It wanders, we are told, around graves and monuments, where shadowy phantoms, images that such souls produce, have been seen, souls that have not been freed and purified but share in the visible, and are therefore seen.”[2]

Interestingly, Plato proposes precisely what many who’ve never heard of him report: “ghostly” activity often seems associated with those who held a strong connection with the physical world in life. A connection indeed appears to exist between one’s attachment to the physical world in life and the likelihood of that person being associated with a “ghostly” presence after death. It logically follows that the more a person was connected to the physical world, the more difficult it would be for that person’s soul to “let go” of the physical world following death of the physical body. Certainly, this doesn’t explain every type of “haunting,” however it does seem to explain a certain type often encountered. At the same time, we don’t want to lose sight of the bigger picture of the Phaedo, which actually involves Plato making a very strong case, based on multiple arguments, for the continued existence of the immaterial and immortal soul following death of the physical body. This is merely one example of how the study of philosophy and theology brings us to an understanding of what the great thinkers of the past believed regarding what we now call “ghosts.” The more deeply we understand precisely what it is that we’re seeking to investigate, the more likely we are to actually understand the results of our investigations.

1. Plato, “Phaedo,” Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy, C.D.C. Reeve and Patrick Lee Miller, eds. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 2006), 80e-81a, p. 119-120.

2. Ibid., 81b-d, p. 120.

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Religion and the Paranormal

Posted in Commentary, Investigations, Religion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2013 by S. P.
Aristotle (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Aristotle (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Some have asked whether religion and the study of the paranormal are necessarily connected. This seems an important philosophical question worth considering. As with all philosophical inquiry, it’s critical that we clearly define our terms before proceeding in order to ensure we’re all using these terms in the same sense.

In this case, it seems we should distinguish between “religion” and “theology.” The study of religion is a human-centered anthropological pursuit which seeks to understand a group’s or individual’s beliefs and acts of worship which arise from those particular beliefs. In this sense, “religion” is nearly synonymous with “worldview.” This is why even those who claim to be atheist, agnostic, or “spiritual without religion” all in fact actually have a religion since “religion” describes a person’s particular belief system and their response to that belief system (i.e. worship).

On the other hand, theology proper shares a connection with metaphysics. Despite certain New Age claims, metaphysics has is not some esoteric New Ager term. Instead, it is a well-established branch of philosophy which takes its name from the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s Metaphysics, a work so named by a later compiler since the compiler placed it following Aristotle’s Physics. Aristotle’s Physics looks at what today we’d term the “natural sciences.” Metaphysics means “after physics.” It is “after physics” both in the sense of following the work Physics and in the sense of studying that which goes beyond the natural sciences or beyond physics. The study of physics is the study of material bodies. After explaining the workings and interactions of these material bodies, Aristotle asked the next logical question: how and why do these material bodies have existence and what does that mean? These answers are found in metaphysics. The subject of metaphysics is being as being; it seeks to understand precisely what it means for a thing to have existence.

Since things have existence by causes, metaphysics also involves a study of causes as such, the most important of which is First Cause or the divine. “Theology” involves study of this First Cause or what even Aristotle termed “God.” So in theology, we’re not looking at the beliefs and practices of human beings, but instead are looking at what we can know about this Being God – theology is God-centered. Certainly different religions offer different theologies, but all theology is focused on what we can know about the Primary Cause of Being.

With this in mind, it would appear that yes indeed, the study of the paranormal involves both “religion” and “theology.” Religion describes worldview, and everyone has one whether acknowledge or unacknowledged, whether examined or unexamined. Our worldview impacts how we look at things; it is the “filter” through which we see the world – and we can have correct worldviews or false worldviews depending on if it corresponds to objective reality or not. That’s why it’s very important to examine one’s own worldview and not simply unquestioningly accept that of postmodern, post-Christian secular society. Exactly as Socrates put it, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Now theology likewise is clearly involved with the study of the paranormal. We claim to seek knowledge about certain kinds of beings popularly termed “ghosts.” The way in which these beings can have being and the nature of that being goes to the realm of metaphysics. Yet, being must have cause and there cannot be an infinite series of causes within a set, but instead must be a First Cause external to that set – in other words, there must be God. And if there is God, then it is God who gives the beings we claim to investigate their being, so it would seem part of our study must necessarily include coming to some understanding of this First Cause or God.

Again, these are important philosophical questions and show why paranormal investigation involves far more than walking around in the dark with a box that goes “beep” or taking photographs of “orbs” composted of dust and insects. Despite popular postmodern claims to the contrary, objective reality and objective truth exist – and they exist completely independently of our mere “belief” in them or not. Our job is to discover the truth of the reality around us; not to delude ourselves into believing we can “create” our own reality independent of objective reality. Descartes had it completely backwards; it’s not “I think therefore I am,” but “I am, therefore I think.” That’s why this notion that every “theory” has equal validity is utter rubbish!

Socrates was absolutely correct that we do ourselves a great disservice when we lead unexamined lives. No matter how solidly built the house, if it rests on a foundation of quick sand, it will fall. This is why worldview is so critical – it is truly our foundation. A mistake here affects everything else: an incorrect worldview leads to an incorrect metaphysics which leads to an incorrect theology. As St. Thomas Aquinas says in On Being and Essence, “A small error in the beginning grows enormous at the end.” So, in the end, there does seem to be a close connection between religion, theology, and study of the paranormal.

2013 All rights reserved.  This copyrighted material may not be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.]

The Ghost and the Saint

Posted in History, Religion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2012 by S. P.

St. John Bosco (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Not only does Christianity acknowledge the existence of the spirit world, even great saints sometimes experience encounters with “ghosts.” One such saint was John Bosco (1815 – 1888). While a young man, Bosco made an agreement with his friend Comollo that whichever of them died first would give the other some sign as to the state of his soul. As it happened, Comollo’s death came first, on April 2, 1839. The next evening, following the funeral of his friend, Bosco sat sleepless on his bed in the dorm room he shared with twenty other seminarians. At this point, we take up the story in Bosco’s own words:

“Midnight struck and I then heard a dull rolling sound from the end of the passage, which grew ever more clear, loud and deep, the nearer it came. It sounded as though a heavy dray were being drawn by many horses, like a railway train, almost like the discharge of a cannon…While the noise came nearer the dormitory, the walls, ceiling and floor of the passage re-echoed and trembled behind it…The students in the dormitory awoke, but none of them spoke…Then the door opened violently of its own accord without anybody seeing anything except a dim light of changing colour that seemed to control the sound…Then a voice was clearly heard, ‘Bosco, Bosco, Bosco, I am saved.’… The seminarists leapt out of bed and fled without knowing where to go. Some gathered in a corner of the dormitory and sought to inspire each other with courage, others crowded around the prefect, Don Giuseppe Fiorito di Rivolo; thus they passed the night and waited anxiously for the coming of day. All had heard the noise and some of them the voice without gathering the meaning of the words. I sat upon my bed and told my comrades that they had no cause for alarm. I had clearly understood the words; they were ‘I am saved.’ Some had also understood them clearly as I had done, and for a long time afterwards there was no other subject of conversation in the seminary.”[1]

[1] As quoted in: Abbot Alois Wiesinger, Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology (London: Burns and Oates, 1957) 228-229.

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