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‘New Age’ Ideas and Theological Vacuum : Can Churches Resist Pull of Paranormal?

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Times Religion Writer

A paper written for a recent symposium on “Death and Afterlife” claimed that studies of out-of-body experiences, extrasensory perception and parapsychology provide “impressive evidence for human survival of bodily death.” Before discussing that paper, the symposium debated the plausibility of reincarnation.

Another eclectic “New Age” conference? A gathering of Shirley MacLaine fans after the network TV miniseries on her metaphysical adventures?

No. It was a philosophy of religion conference sponsored by the Claremont Graduate School with only university professors participating. The papers also included a traditional Christian defense of a literal bodily resurrection after death--another viewpoint often deemed untenable in academia.

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“This kind of conference couldn’t have been held in a university setting 10 years ago,” said David R. Griffin, who wrote the parapsychology paper.

Unconventional Views

Nor was it likely that Griffin, who teaches theology at the United Methodist-related School of Theology at Claremont, would have been openly claiming a decade ago that paranormal research affords empirical confirmation for Christian belief.

But unconventional views of reality may also show up in pulpits and pews if a change is being signaled.

Griffin suggested in an interview that a spiritual vacuum exists in organized religion that might be filled by theologies drawing--for better or worse--from what is called parapsychology, paranormal studies, psychic phenomena and, somewhat pejoratively, the “New Age” movement.

That new direction in mainline Christianity is made at least plausible, some religious analysts say, by two contributing factors in American life:

The rising willingness to express beliefs about paranormal experiences, as indicated by polls. Forty-two percent of American adults believe that they have been in contact with someone who has died, up from 27% a decade earlier, according to surveys. Two out of three adults say they have experienced ESP and 23% believe in reincarnation.

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The declining influence of liberal theology. “Theology has become increasingly marginal in American intellectual life,” said Ronald F. Thiemann, dean of Harvard Divinity School, who recalls the influence that theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich had in the 1950s. The journal Theology Today complains that “single-issue” theologies relating to social issues proliferate, but few new, innovative theologies are being advanced.

“I think that modern liberal theology is bankrupt,” Griffin said. “That accounts for the lack of excitement in liberal churches.”

The “bad word” for Griffin is not liberal, but modern. He is also director of the Center for a Post-Modern World, based in Santa Barbara. Griffin says he wants to encourage people to abandon so-called modern viewpoints that are highly skeptical of anything seeming to be “extraordinary” phenomena.

Griffin is a religious liberal who declares that it is possible to find “a meaningful world without going to an authoritarian view of Scripture or of the papacy.”

‘Out on a Limb’ a Clue

With openness to parapsychology, Griffin said, “we can have a robust belief in God and life after death and healing through prayer.”

Griffin said the very fact that the dramatization of Shirley MacLaine’s book, “Out on a Limb,” was shown on network television “shows that things are changing.” To some extent, Griffin conceded, the actress’s acceptance of “trance channeling” to contact deceased spirits, meetings with extraterrestrials and other assorted beliefs could lead some people to dismiss all paranormal claims.

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The very fact, also, that a theologian at a major seminary considers some of the data valid lends potential credibility to the movement.

The Rev. Richard Cain, president of the School of Theology at Claremont, said faculty members “are free to research wherever their intelligence leads them to go.” Their investigations “do not necessarily become material for their teaching. A theological faculty provides training for the future leaders of the church,” Cain said.

The graduate-level seminary he heads has not been criticized over Griffin’s views about parapsychology, Cain said. “We often get lambasted over process theology,” he said, referring to the not-specifically-Christian, metaphysical theology that faculty members John Cobb and Griffin espouse. Cobb has indicated an openness to certain parapsychology findings, but it is Griffin who fits the material into his own version of process theology.

Healing Conference

The seminary campus was also the site in January for a “Healing the Healers” conference that included “experimental workshops” that sounded typical of holistic health conferences. Designed for people in the health and counseling professions, the conference included workshops on “The Healing Power of Eurythmy” (“in which the whole body is engaged as an instrument”) and “Extricating Hidden Compulsions,” a supposed mixture of Sufi and Jesuit spiritual training.

Howard Clinebell, director of the sponsoring Institute for Religion and Wholeness at the seminary, said the institute was not endorsing the views espoused in every workshop.

“In Southern California, many things that come under the labels of ‘New Age’ and ‘spiritual healing’ are off the wall and are potentially very dangerous,” Clinebell said.

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“But we want to be open to new theories in parapsychology and figure out what’s sound today,” he said. “There are literally millions of intelligent people out there searching, who are alienated from organized religion and have unfulfilled needs for meaning. The future is very problematic for organized religion if we are not open to new methods of healing.”

Beliefs in holistic health techniques and the paranormal have often gone together in churches that came out of the metaphysical “New Thought” movement early this century, including Religious Science congregations.

‘Negotiable’ Beliefs

But is it likely that parapsychology and unconventional healing techniques will find a place in liberal-to-moderate Christian churches?

At Garden Grove’s Crystal Cathedral pastored by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, one official said the church is strong on the central beliefs about Jesus Christ “but everything else is negotiable.”

Greg Anderson, executive director of Schuller’s Institute for Successful Church Leadership, said a “Cancer Conquerors” spiritual therapy group at the church sometimes uses “visualization and mental imagery techniques.” Anderson conceded that such techniques “are problematic to some people,” but as long as it can be put into a Christian context “we are comfortable with it.”

Anderson said he thinks that churches should be receptive to some paranormal claims.

“I’ve had practicing Christians in my office who talk about out-of-body experiences,” Anderson said. “There are enough examples of that today to know that it is a real experience. So, to me (it means that) you don’t shut it out.”

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Parishioners are very aware and interested, Griffin said, “but their ministers can’t give them any guidance” about what’s plausible and what’s deceptive or dangerous. Most ministers “were taught in seminary to be very skeptical,” he said.

Mystical Experiences

Sociologist-priest Andrew Greeley recently wrote in American Health magazine that national surveys by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Council demonstrated that people are less afraid in the 1980s to talk about their mystical experiences.

About 27% of adults polled in 1973 said they had been in contact with someone who has died, usually a spouse or sibling. In 1984, 42% said they had that experience. Greeley also said the 1984 survey showed that 67% of adults report having experienced ESP, compared to 58% in 1973.

While admitting that he is “profoundly skeptical of paranormal phenomena,” the best-selling author said he often uses mystical claims in his novels. Greeley said critics and readers have objected that such events are not real, but he said he disagrees as a sociologist: “To pretend that such perceptions do not occur to ordinary people in everyday life is like a Victorian novelist pretending that sexual intercourse does not occur.”

The popular attraction of the “New Age” movement has alarmed conservative Christians and secularists, both worried from their own perspectives about a gullible public.

In major urban areas where religious affiliation is relatively low, some churches may be vulnerable, said a researcher with an evangelical group in Berkeley that critiques new religious movements.

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‘Soft’ on Scriptural Authority

“No doubt (New Age movements) will grow and continue to find their way into churches, particularly liberal churches, which are frequently soft on the authority of Scripture,” Robert Burrows said by telephone from the Spiritual Counterfeits Project in Berkeley. Burrows last May authored a cover story critical of the New Age movement for Christianity Today, a leading evangelical magazine.

An apparent rising interest in “spirit guides” and “channeling” (communicating with disembodied spirits) “indicates a deepening of the delusion,” Burrows contended.

“That represents another notch in the downward spiral of the culture,” Burrows said. “It shows a profound naivete about the spiritual world. You wouldn’t find such a naivete in Third World countries. They don’t think you throw yourselves in the hands of any spirit that just comes along.”

On the secularist side, the humanist-oriented Free Inquiry magazine is running a series of articles aimed at debunking theories of reincarnation and the practice of “past-life regression,” which claims to recover memories of previous lives while under hypnosis.

“The reincarnation movement is particularly attractive to many because the biggest fear in life is the knowledge of death,” editor Paul Kurtz said in a recent statement.

Belief in Reincarnation

Kurtz suggested that the trend may have grown in America since a Gallup Poll in 1981 found that 23% of adults and 28% of teen-agers in America believed in reincarnation--higher percentages than the ratios of Buddhist, Hindu and Eastern religion adherents in this country.

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In one article, Paul Edwards of Brooklyn College, editor of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, said that when the tenet is accepted that “new souls” are never added to the world, only subtracted as some end the cycle of rebirth, the increase in population would mean that there are not enough past lives to go around.

Religious philosopher John Hick, a Claremont Graduate School professor who organized the “Death and Afterlife” conference, said he has looked carefully at accounts of spontaneous recollections of previous lives. Hick said he does not consider them, including a much-cited, four-volume work by Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia, “to constitute conclusive or even nearly conclusive evidence” for multiple existences.

Likewise, research into claims of spirit contact through trances was termed “ambiguous and uncertain” by Hick.

Nevertheless, Hick writes about the theoretical possibility of surviving death and is one of the few religious thinkers in liberal Christian circles who writes about such matters. Catholic theologian Hans Kung is another.

Human Dignity, Oppression

“Most theologians today are embarrassed by the idea of the afterlife,” said Hick, referring to a broad sense outside of conservative Christianity that meaningful theology must address questions of human dignity and oppression.

Liberation theology played a major role in Latin America. Theologies spawned by the black and feminist movements also have placed those struggles into more ennobling religious frameworks, proponents say.

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But “single-issue” theologies that often “seem so angry, pretentious and intolerant” of anyone unaware of the crucial significance, for example, of abortion, the sanctuary movement, peace and anti-nuclear protests were deplored by Hugh T. Kerr, editor of Theology Today, published at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Kerr wrote in the January issue that the broader implications of Christian tradition tend to get left out of the single-issue theologies. Moreover, other theological writing is timid, uncreative and lacking in literary grace, he asserted.

The latest attention has been focused on “post-liberal theology,” which, among other things, calls for not letting the secular world write the church’s agenda and not abandoning the particular language Christianity in the interest of interfaith harmony.

“I think there are a lot of fuzzy edges to post-liberal theology, and you have to spend half the time saying what you mean and don’t mean,” Kerr said in an interview.

Kerr said he did not know whether beliefs connected with paranormal studies stand a good chance of surfacing in mainline Christianity. “The norms for evaluation appear to be tenuous and ambiguous,” Kerr said.

Yet, in the view of some religious sociologists and psychologists, Kerr observed, “people are persistently religious. If they can’t find meaningful existence in mainline religions, they’ll find it somewhere else.”

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