Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Christianity and the paranormal

I'd like to piggyback on a post by Jason Engwer:

Many Christians are very skittish about the paranormal. But it's important for Christian philosophers, apologists, theologians, and pastors to be informed about the paranormal:

1. If Christianity is true, and paranormal phenomena exist, then the existence of the paranormal is consistent with the truth of Christianity. In that event, we should be able to integrate the paranormal into a Christian worldview. That doesn't necessary mean we condone the paranormal. Depends on the example. To take a comparison, the occult is consistent with the truth of Christianity. And we need to be able to explain how the occult fits into a Christian worldview.

2. If people, whether Christians or unbelievers, experience the paranormal, but pastors, apologists, and theologians have no answers, then that drives Christians and unbelievers into the arms of New Age quack and swindlers in search of explanations. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the paranormal is co-opted by charlatans and unbelievers because Christians vacated that field of investigation. 

3. According to the standard paradigm of naturalism, the universe is a closed system and everything is composed of matter and energy. But many kinds of paranormal phenomena are incompatible with naturalism. So paranormal phenomena render a service to Christian apologetics and evangelism by eliminating naturalism from consideration.

4. Now it's possible for an atheist to believe in the paranormal. He can redefine naturalism. Stephen Braude, who's a leading paranormal philosopher and researcher, is irreligious. 

If, however, you concede that minds can act apart from brains and bodies, then that removes a barrier to Christian theism. That opens the door to God, souls, angels, demons, and miracles. 

5. The "paranormal" is an umbrella for a miscellany of phenomena. It's useful to do some sifting and sorting so that we can distinguish the hooey from verifiable phenomena.

6. Many people are atheists because they never experience anything that's out of keeping with naturalism. Never experience anything that can't be explained in mundane terms. At least from their philosophically untutored perspective. 

Yet there are many people who have uncanny experiences that suddenly open a window to whole different realm of reality they never suspected. Something they scoffed at until it happened to them. They were atheists because the Bible describes a world which has no analogy to their humdrum existence. Until, that is, something happens which peels away the wallpaper of naturalism and exposes another dimension of reality that dovetails with the biblical worldview. At once, what was so incredible in Scripture becomes realistic. 

So paranormal experience can be a bridge to the Christian faith. Pastors need to be able to walk them the rest of the way across the bridge.

I'm not suggesting that people should cultivate paranormal experience. In many cases it befell them unbidden. In other cases they were experimenting with the occult, and tapped into something real. That's dangerous and terrifying, but God can redirect it. If Satan exists, God exists. If witchcraft is real, miracles are real. These are two sides of good and evil. 


  1. Steve,

    I have previously read posts where you do not exclude the possibility of ghosts. Your post does not go into the issue - being about paranormal phenomena in general.

    You have previously given examples of some seemingly ridiculous positions that Christian physicalists are forced into. Substance dualism makes more sense to me, but not because I have arrived at that view on the basis of a careful consideration of the Biblical data. I haven't taken that sort of deep dive into Scripture on that particular issue.

    Consider this hypothetical. If your view of human ontology changed (such that you became convinced on Biblical grounds that (say) non-reductive physicalism were true), how do you see this as affecting your assessment of claims of paranormal phenomena?

    Would your position be that all such paranormal phenomena (to the extent truly paranormal) would *have* to be the result of supernatural agency?

    1. I think it's fairly certain that ghosts exist. I don't really have a fallback position. According to physicalism, all mental activity is confined to the brain. I think that's simply incompatible with certain kinds of paranormal phenomena. One would have to deny one or the other: physicalism or the paranormal.

      The natural/supernatural distinction is slippery. In principle, some paranormal phenomena might be a natural ability, but only if substance dualism is true and causal closure is false.