Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. This is the last in the 2014 series. The previous five “Ask Andrews” are already posted. Enjoy!
Ask Andrew Part 6: Mediums and Spirits
On the TV show “Long Island Medium”, Teresa communicates messages from dead relatives to grieving spouses, children or friends. They are always positive and usually indicate that the spirit is often with the living person, watching over them and sometimes ensuring their well being.
Much of what she says may very well be on Facebook, an intelligent guess or just luck. However, it is difficult to understand where she gets some data unless the (so called) grieving person is in on the scam.
What is the United Church’s position on communication with spirits?
What does Andrew think of messages from beyond via a medium?
As far as I can tell, the United Church does not have any formal position on mediums. But that’s okay, because I have lots to say!!
For this question, the biblical witness is difficult for us. Our lesson from 1st Samuel shows a medium calling up the shadow of the prophet Samuel for king Saul, who had banned all mediums.
The ban was ordered by God through Samuel, basically because mediums or those who tried to use magic were competitors to God: they either served other gods or they tried to exercise powers that only belonged to God. There is nothing in the Bible that says they couldn’t do it, rather that doing it was wrong. That’s why the medium actually succeeded in calling up Samuel.
I think that the most entertaining part of this episode is what happens next, after our reading ends. The ghost of Samuel gets angry because of what Saul has done, and proceeds to tell him off; actually to prophesy against him. I think this is ironic and really funny. After all, Saul should have seen it coming.
Then in our Acts reading we have another example of this kind of thing. In this case it is a slave girl possessed by a spirit that gives her supernatural knowledge: a “spirit of divination”. Since she is a slave, her owners are making a pile of money from her talents. The apostle Paul & those with him find her annoying & disruptive, so Paul casts the spirit out of her.
Of course, the owners are mad because she’s lost her profitability. Since there is no law that allows them to sue for lost profits (note that I resisted the pun potential in “lost prophets”), they get Paul & Silas thrown into prison on trumped up charges.
Again, from the Biblical perspective, the idea of the existence of spirits or their summoning or exorcising is not in question. As I have mentioned previously in another blog, a lot of the medical understanding of those days was tied up with spirits. Most illness, physical or mental, was understood to be caused by possession. Therefore, if someone was healed, their evil spirit had obviously been cast out. We are not comfortable with this language in the 21st century, but back in the 1st century, it was the most natural thing in the world.
Since the Protestant reformation 500 years ago, our understanding of all of this has changed a lot. Most Protestant churches don’t formally believe in possession or exorcisms anymore, and those churches that do put severe limits on what constitutes a real possession.
The only time I ever did a house blessing was for a family that was afraid their house was haunted, and they were worried about their newborn daughter. I did not proceed because I believed in hauntings, but because I saw the need to perform a pastoral act. I knew that simple logic wouldn’t be enough to calm the anxious parents down, and I thought that the blessing would make them feel better afterwards. So I looked up a house blessing liturgy on the web, amended it so I could use it in good conscience, and proceeded to pray at the house for the family’s well being in it. The parents were very happy.
The United Church doesn’t have a policy because it doesn’t feel the need for one. We don’t believe that mediums are real.
We have a variety of ideas about how God takes care of life after death, and most of them tend to include some sense that God is too caring to allow a lot of dead spirits to wander around this world, able to interfere with this life after they have left it.
So what do we do with people who claim to be mediums? I will confess that I have never watched the show Long Island Medium (and don’t plan to), so I can’t comment specifically on what Teresa does there. Nevertheless, I do have some opinions.
Anyone who has watched the show The Mentalist will have a shortcut to my opinioin.
There are people in the world who are very sensitive: not to the spirits of the dead, but to the unspoken language that other people use all the time. Body language is a big part of it: those things we do that give away our moods whether we want them to or not. Beyond that, someone who knows what they are doing can read our choices of words, our silences, and even the way that we listen to other people’s words to discover a huge amount about us.
I know this because I am married to someone who can do this. Over the years it has really looked like mind-reading on occasion. Now, if Lori could only do this to me, I would conclude that’s just about being married for over 30 years. After all, each one of us has some capacity to learn to interpret other people’s unspoken communications. But Lori can do this with most of the people she meets, and has been able to do this as long as I have known her.
That’s what makes Lori such an exceptional counsellor. She has the ability to read all those things that people don’t know they are saying, and she combines that with a deep understanding of how people and relationships work. Lori does this so automatically that she has often expressed frustration at the fact that other people can’t see what seems obvious to her.
It is my opinion that the people who look like the most believable mediums have a large degree of this ability to read other people’s unspoken language, and that they combine it with other information, some of which may be common knowledge, or clever guesses. I strongly suspect that they have developed a skill at steering people away from noticing the wrong guesses they make, and get them excited by the right ones.
Naturally, they tell people what they want to hear: which is usually that their departed loved ones are at peace, or happy, or they have forgiven them, or that they love them. General and comforting things like that will make for happy customers, and are a lot easier to deliver than details like where Great Aunt Matilda hid the silver teapot before she died.
I mentioned The Mentalist earlier, where the hero, Patrick Jane, started as a carnival side-show psychic and eventually had his own television show doing the same thing. As he works with the police, he takes the position that all mediums are frauds.
I am inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt more than that. I can well imagine that someone who has grown up knowing how to understand people in the ways I have described above might well believe that their abilities are psychic, especially if friends or relatives have been telling them this for years. A lot of the reading of body language happens at a subconscious level so it can look really mysterious, even to the person doing it. Someone in this position may feel like they are just trying to help people, and have no fraudulent motives at all.
But by the time someone is in a carnival side-show, or fronting their own television show, I am inclined to view them with a great deal of skepticism, just as I am skeptical of the people who try to take Christianity to the masses on television in splashy ways, and coincidentally make themselves rich and famous along the way. I have to wonder what lines have to be crossed to achieve that sort of fame and publicity in an area that is founded on beliefs, that touches on people’s deepest hopes and fears. They may not have sold their souls to get there, but I suspect that their integrity has suffered a huge cost.
In short, I don’t believe in Mediums, or what they claim they can do. Some may honestly believe that they are in contact with something mystical but I suspect that the ones we hear about are simple frauds.
What they do can be explained in terms of human abilities, talents and skills that seem mysterious and mystical to those of us who aren’t as skilled. While they seem mystical, they are not. I can say this because I have a lot more ability to read people now than I used to. I have been observing Lori for over 30 years, and learning from her advice and wisdom. I will never be able to do what she can, but I have learned that it is not mystical or magical.
And even more importantly, I don’t believe that when we leave this life God intends for us to hang around as Spirit Guides or even as post-mortem life-coaches. What God has in store for us is beyond imagination, and will keep us plenty busy in the next life, so that we can leave this present life to those who still inhabit it.