It’s time to tackle the question I’ve avoided in this series.
Do I believe in ghosts?
I am a Fortean as well as a Christian. I allow for the possibility of the strange, improbable, and anomalous in the world. I also enthusiastically embrace a supernatural worldview which includes daily miracles, the power of prayer, the eternal soul, the resurrection of the dead, and angels and demons fighting an epic battle for the salvation of each one of us.
I believe the world is much more interesting and unexplainable than science allows. I believe many in the “skeptical” community are simply narrow-minded zealots with a militant kind of scientistic religion. I think CSICOP is little more than a collection of dogmatic twits and James Randi is a nasty old fool. Self-described skeptics have a tendency to wave away any and all eyewitness testimony, assuming all witnesses are liars or deluded if their testimony does not reinforce the materialistic mechanism of the skeptical religion.
The folks at Fortean Times—for which I’ve written in the past—are my kind of people: curious and open-minded, but not credulous. They’re interested in the strange corners of the world that don’t fit the dominant narrative. In contrast to the arrogance of skeptics, they’re refreshingly humble in the face of this mysterious and magnificent world.
This does not, however, mean I’m a credulous person who grasps at strange happenings and accepts them uncritically. I do not believe in alien abduction, the Loch Ness monster, or that UFO guy on the history channel.
I’m agnostic on lake monsters and giant hominids like bigfoot, but tend more to doubt than belief. We haven’t even come close to cataloging all the creatures of world, but I think after all this time, there would be better evidence that dinosaurs are in a Scottish lake or giant primates are traipsing around the Pacific Northwest. As someone inclined to view things anthropologically, I’m more interested in the belief in bigfoot than in his reality.
I think there may be a sixth sense that is beyond traditional perception, and that there’s probably nothing “supernatural” about it. It’s may just be a higher form of perception that we don’t yet understand, the way certain animals predict earthquakes. I do not, however, believe people can predict the future, unless gifted by God with a vision or charism of prophecy.
I believe it’s possible to traffic with evil spirits to the great destruction of the individual. It is not possible to a be a Christian and deny demons or demonic possession.
But as for ghosts?
Well, I don’t disbelieve in ghosts.
Or, to quote MR James, “I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.”
There is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest people have experienced sightings of the dead. I wholly accept that. My problem is with how we define “ghosts” and the nature of the vision. With Augustine, I suspect that most ghostly encounters are produced in the mediating imagination between the corporeal and the intellectual vision.
I allow that this vision can be influenced by outside supernatural agencies, but the fundamental question of Augustine—if the soul is immaterial, how are we seeing it?—remains a challenge. I think this point can be overcome by suggesting some external influence on the imagination of the witness, but it remains a question the medievals didn’t really put to rest, even while they were largely accepting of ghostly sightings.
I certainly believe God can allow for anything, including for the miraculous ability of the dead to appear to the living, through His, angelic, or demonic agency.
More problematic is the nature of the ordinary restless dead. The medievals accepted them because they could be fit into a larger theology of purgatory, and I’m willing to accept that as well. I certainly don’t think everyone who claims to have experienced a ghost is lying or deluded, though some certainly are. I think psychology rather than the supernatural is the best explanation in most cases, but others are genuinely supernatural.
So, my position is somewhere between Augustine and Thomas: I allow for the possibility, but have problems with some of the details.
Like Augustine, however, I can’t just leave it at that, especially not after a month of pelting you with ghost stories. And so I’ll share two of my own experiences with you.
The first comes from when I was very young, and is actually one of my earliest—and certainly most vivid—memories. I can still summon it as clearly as if it happened yesterday.
My grandfather, William Carhart
My grandfather died in my home when I was about two. I do not remember him, and only know him from pictures.
From a young age, I slept in a room shared with my brother. My bed was in front of a door which was kept open a bit, with a light left on in the hall. I was maybe four or five, and in bed, when I saw an old and wrinkled hand come through that sliver of door, grasp it, and slowly push it open. There in the doorway stood my grandfather. I came unglued, screamed, and ran through him to my parents’ bedroom. He vanished.
I suspect that I was more asleep than awake in this encounter, but dream or vision, it’s never left me. Make of it what you will.
The other story comes from when I was a teen, working in my home church, St. Agnes, in Clark, New Jersey.
I locked up every night around nine before going home. This was usually done in semi-dark, and was always a somewhat unsettling experience. An empty church at night in the dark has a peculiar power to it, which is why, again, I’m not sure I trust my own senses.
I was locking the side doors when an elderly lady came in to pray, walking with a four-footed cane in her right hand. She had on a hat and tweed coat. I can see her now as clearly as I can see the dog sleeping next to me as I write this.
I didn’t want to bother her, so I finished locking the side doors and waited for her at the front, leaving only one door unlocked for her to get out.
Time passed, and I decided I would have to move her along so I could get home. I went back to the sanctuary, and the church was empty.
There was no other way out except past me.
I searched for that old lady for a while, even looking under pews in case she fainted. She was just gone.
Thus, I can’t really discount the possibility of ghosts. I think I may have seen a couple myself.
So, yes, I think I may believe in ghosts, sometimes.
The complete series can be found here.