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Religion And Ghosts

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

EVERYBODY today talks of psychic phenomena. The theme has become almost the next after the weather. The subject is not as yet an entirely serious one with the public. It is, like mothers-in-law or marriage with a deceased wife's sister, a topic for badinage. There is, nevertheless, far more in it than has been discovered by the jesters. The facts, so far as we know them, are indeed not at all a laughing matter. They come and go, leaving scant opportunity for accurate observation ; yet even in passing they flash a gleam which, like sudden lightning on the waters, opens the vision of unfathomed depths beneath.

We propose here to discuss the relation of this question to religion. We are, of course, not the first to follow that track. A modern philosophy greatly in vogue goes back to ghosts for its theory of religious origins. Mr. Herbert Spencer finds here the starting point of the belief in a future state, and of the systems of religion that are built upon it. In his dreams the savage, while his body lay inert on the ground, found himself moving freely, conversing, recognising as close to him people who he knew were far distant, or long since passed away. These apparitions, in sleep or trance, were to him as real as the actual world. From them he conceived a spiritual world, where the soul moved when the body was inert or dead. His waking imagination easily confirmed the dreams of the night. The vision, the ghostly appearance, became actualities in his scheme of life. The ancestor he had seen in his dream was existent in the unseen. He must open communication with him ; he must pay homage to his chiefs yonder, and to whatsoever powers ruled there beside.

On this, it may be said, to begin with, that if it were admitted as in itself an accurate account of religious beginnings, there would lie here no argument whatever against the authority and the sanctions of religion as we know it. To say that religion came to us through a lowly gateway is simply to offer us one more instance of the universal order. Everything has come to us that way. Nothing would be more absurd than to judge of the proportions and significance of a life-fact by its first appearances. Nature, in planning her great achievements, always begins low. She makes no show at the start ; gives no hint, in the first rude sketch, of the wealth of genius that is yet to appear. With a millionaire's resources, she starts on thirty shillings a week. In her magnificent evolution, what appears at first is nothing. The question always to be asked is, " What lies behind ? " And nowhere do we so need to ask it as in discussing religion.

But a defence of this kind is now almost unnecessary. A curious change is coming over opinion.

Thirty years ago the dream and ghost theory was being urged as a disparagement of the religious position. The spiritual concept was shown as a product of savagery, and that seemed enough to dispose of its claims. But to-day we approach the subject from another starting-point. A different question is being asked. " Why is it," the modern thinker demands, " that among all the races of mankind, civilised and uncivilised, there has appeared and has survived, the belief in a life after death ? " For nothing apparently is more contrary to the evidence. The vote of the senses is dead against it. The mind, as Lucretius long ago pointed out, appears to follow exactly the fortunes of the body. His

Praeterea gigni pariter cum Corpora et una
Cresoere sentimus pariterque senesoere mentem.

(Besides, we see the mind to be born with the body, and grow with the body, and to decay with it) seems to settle the whole matter. When death comes the entire system breaks up. The separate particles, held together no longer by the vital bond, form new combinations. The elements are here, for they are eternal, but the form we knew is gone and will return no more.

With all this for man to think about, why his permanent belief in survival ? We say nothing here of those new aspects of matter and its mysterious potencies which the latest science is revealing. Radium, the properties of radiant matter, the energy of electrons, the composition of the molecule, the entire range of supersensual physics, open to us vistas of thought of which our fathers knew othing. But what they count for in the argument is aside from our immediate question, which is, " Why have men in all the past ages, with the evidence of the senses so powerfully against them, believed that the soul survived death's catastrophe ? " That they did so is seen in all literature. Vedic hymns, 3,500 years old, sing of a spiritual body inside the fleshly one, by which the dead rise to heaven. And that note is everywhere. The answer which is being given to-day, and by men who have every claim to be heard, is largely in the Spencerian direction, but with a new point and a new emphasis. They hold that the belief did come from the dream and the apparition, but with the addition that some at least of the dreams and some of the apparitions were really valid as evidence, and have to-day to be accepted as such.

We have in fact on this subject reached a new position. For the first time in history the question of apparitions, of psychic phenomena in general, has been taken up as a branch of science. We are far from the attitude so humorously expressed by Fontenelle, who " didn't believe in ghosts, but was afraid of them." Our age wants to know, and is on the track of knowing. It is collecting the evidence that has floated down the ages, and is examining it with a new eye. It is boldly entering this dim region in search of its laws. The frame of mind which dismissed the ancient stories with a shrug, is recognised not as science but as ignorance. A record such, for instance, as that of Apollonius of Tyana, that when at Ephesus he saw in spirit the assassination of Domitian at Rome ; crying out suddenly in the midst of his friends, " Strike him down, the tyrant ! " and declaring immediately, " Domitian has just been slain," is accepted to-day as falling entirely within the category of the possible. The researches of a Crookes, of a Myers, of a Gurney, of a Rochas, of a Gabriel Delanne, have brought within our view a mass of facts which are as solidly based as they are wonderful. With many of these explorers the existence of an ethereal body within the material, which can be exteriorised under certain conditions, is held as proved. Sir William Crookes has taken photographs of these materialisations. M. Rochas speaks of an externalised consciousness which feels a touch or a pin prick. Swedenborg communicated messages from deceased persons to relatives on matters of fact which were found to be accurate in every detail. Had Kant lived in our day he would probably have gone further than his recorded admission on this subject, striking as it is from one of his quality : " For my part, ignorant as I am of the way in which the human spirit enters the world, and the ways in which it goes out of it, I dare not deny the truth of many of the narratives that are in circulation."

But if this body of evidence is to be accepted as containing at least a nucleus of fact, what is the relation of it to religion as we know it ? The relation is very evident and very immediate. The sphere we are investigating, let us admit, is one that lends itself readily to imposture, and it is one where the impostor has revelled. " Sludge, the Medium," has displayed himself here in all his cunning, in all his vulgarity. Yet a Browning, in the midst of his merciless exposure, finds at the bottom of the business a residuum which his scepticism cannot get over. His own belief one sees is in that final question,

Which of those who say they disbelieve,
Your clever people, but has dreamed his dream,
Caught his coincidence, stumbled on his fact, He can't explain ?

And amid the thousand impostures it is the one fact that counts. As Hegel has it : " Dem Begriffe nach einmal ist allemal." (" In the region of ideas ` once ' is equal to ` always.") The one fact clears away all a priori impossibilities, for, as Aristotle says : " Things which have happened are manifestly possible, for if they had been impossible they would not have happened." One single message from the unseen world and that unseen is proved as actual. One demonstration that the soul can act outside the body, and the question of its survival of death has entered on a new phase.

And this question becomes, we say, immediately religious. It gives the death-blow to that material-ism of which Goethe once said " the theory which reduces all things to matter and motion appeared to me so grey, so Cimmerian, and so dead, that we shuddered at it as at a ghost." On the contrary, man is here shown to be a spiritual being, in a spiritual universe, and the difference is immense. The thought of a continuance of being is, and by the constitution of human nature must necessarily be, ore of the great religious motives. We may talk of " virtue being its own reward," and of " doing right because it is right," but it remains that the thought of sheer extinction ; of our endeavour ending, so far as we are concerned, in utter nothingness ; of our virtue or our vice debouching, after a few brief years, into the same all-swallowing néant—must make all the difference to the struggle.

Moreover, the facts won in this research carry so much that is intimately religious with them. They are in accord with all the soul's aspirations, when it is at its highest. Are we not continually saying to ourselves :

And thus I know this earth is not my sphere,
For I cannot so narrow me but that
I still exceed it ?

And this other feature of the situation, that into the unseen state we carry no smallest item of our outward possessions ; that houses, lands, shares, our ornaments and jewels of price, our luxury and splendour of living, fall absolutely away, leaving as sole residuum the accumulations of our inner consciousness, what make we of that ? Once scientifically apprehended and solidly fixed in the mind, it should be the death, surely, of that insane coveting, of the mad lust for wealth which rages to-day ? Filled with these truths, a man ceases to be in a hurry. His outlook takes in eternity. As the years pass his interest in life does not diminish, but rather increases. He has a stake in it beyond what is seen.

But the soul
Whence the love comes ;—all ravage leaves that whole.
Vainly the flesh fades ; soul makes all things new.

Finally, it is on the great fact of the spiritual world that the New Testament rests. Its whole implication is there. That the visible is the vestibule of a greater invisible ; that the material is symbol of the immaterial ; that body is for the sake of soul ; that earthly conditions are for the working out of Divine conclusions ; that death is but transition ; that the spirit in which we are now doing our work will show itself in consciousness a thousand ages hence ; these are parts of Christ's Gospel ; and these are carried also in the facts offered us today. Truly they are facts to ponder. And in pondering them we may ask our poet's question :

When earth breaks up and heaven expands,
How will the change strike me and you,
In the house not made with hands ?



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