A miscellany of mystifying musings from me.
Do You See What I See? is a children's book from medium Katrina-Jane, written and illustrated in a deliberately childlike style. Its purpose is to comfort small children who see apparitional visions. Book description:
Having gone through a childhood with no help or instruction as to what she was experiencing, Katrina-Jane brings you this book with her desire to help children to believe that they are loved and safe and that what they are seeing and hearing is perfectly normal. This book is certain to calm and soothe your children and to help them understand that what they have is a gift and to cherish it. Bring joy and tranquility to your children today by reading them this lovely bedtime story.
I don't know how many children have such experiences, but I would imagine that any who do would benefit from this charming little book.
Another new book, this one for grownups, is The Medium Who Baffled Houdini, by Elaine M. Kuzmeskus. It narrates the career of Mina Crandon, known in parapsychology literature as Margery. It's the most thorough account I've seen of this enigmatic figure, who remains controversial today.
In his attempt to debunk Mina, Houdini allegedly resorted to planting a folding yardstick on her person (a tool used by fake physical mediums to move objects outside their reach in the dark). The book downplays a later controversy that discredited Mina in the eyes of many psychical researchers — a thumbprint purportedly produced by an ectoplasmic spirit turned out to belong to the dentist who had given Mina the wax used for the impression — but there's still a lot of good information in here. The author told me:
While the book is written as a story, it is backed by over 200 citations, including a review of the research conducted by the American Society of Psychical Research and Harvard University.... I also did an extensive study of physical phenomena for a previous book, Séance 101: Physical Mediumship. Having witnessed table tipping, direct voice, trumpet mediumship, and materialization first-hand, I know that physical phenomena is possible. Even though Margery was not a perfect medium, at times her life was plagued by alcoholism and mischief, she truly possessed a remarkable gift of physical mediumship.
Incidentally, I wrote an essay on the Crandon case back in 2003.
At the moment I'm reading How Jesus Became God, by Bart D. Ehrman. It's an excellent rundown of the evidence that Jesus was seen in various ways by his earliest followers — as a mortal man who was elevated to divinity after death; as a man elevated to divinity upon his baptism; as a person who was divine from the very moment of his conception; and as an eternal divinity who preexisted his earthly life. There were also differences as to the degree of Jesus' divinity — was he God's chief angel, or a hypostasis of God (Wisdom and Logos were two possibilities), or the co-equal of God himself?
In his discussion of the apparitions that led some of Jesus' followers to believe he had been resurrected, Ehrman mentions two studies from psychical research: Henry Sidgwick's pioneering study of apparitions, which led to the SPR's "Census of Hallucinations" (later written up as Phantasms of the Living), and Bill and Judy Guggenheims' work on after-death communications.
As an agnostic, Ehrman clearly believes that all such experiences are grounded in psychological and neurological factors. For those who are open to the idea of actual contact with the deceased, Jesus' apparitions can be seen as actual events no different from the vivid, multisensory apparitions reported by some people today. It does not necessarily follow that Jesus was God or uniquely endowed with divine qualities, any more than a visit from one's deceased aunt establishes that she has been elevated to godhood. Since Jesus' followers already believed that he was the messiah and that general bodily resurrection would accompany the end of the present age, they naturally interpreted Jesus' apparitional visits as proof of his physical resurrection — the "first fruits" of the universal resurrection to come.
There's recently been some discussion on this blog of why life can be so difficult. Maybe the simplest answer is that we live in a dualistic reality, in which spirit has been rather crudely and not altogether successfully grafted onto matter.
The more I see of human behavior, the more I think that a great deal of it can be explained in terms of anthropology, evolution, social conditioning, and biological needs. Much of the time we behave automatically and unconsciously. We hoot and jeer to express displeasure or clap our hands to express delight, we band together in defensive groups, we engage in threat displays, etc. Higher consciousness competes with animalistic reflexes and instincts originating in a limbic brain conditioned by the age-old struggle for survival. In such a world, it's inevitable that there will be a mixture of high and low, of elevated thought and base primitivism. The same individual who pontificates on "what a piece of work is man" can casually murder an eavesdropper by running him through.
This explanation presupposes that if there is a plan underlying our experience, it is not a perfect plan. It is more like an improvised, cobbled-together plan that does the best it can with the materials available. A castaway making a floatable vessel out of whatever he can find on the beach can't hope to build a luxury cruise ship. He'll have to take his chances on a leaky raft.
It may not be entirely satisfying to take this view. There is something more compelling about the idea that if we could pierce the veil and see what's really going on, all would be perfect oneness and perfect harmony. But maybe not. Maybe perfection is impossible, even in principle. A perfect plan would require infinite knowledge, and perhaps infinity (whether spatial or informational) is logically impossible. Maybe we're all just making it up as we go, and since we don't know exactly what we're doing, we can't help but get a lot of things wrong.