“Religion is belief in a supreme being. Science is belief in a supreme generalization. Essentially they are the same. Both are the suppressors of witchcraft.” —Charles Fort
Adventism, and Protestantism more broadly, sits in the foggy crossroads of two, vaguely described ideas: faith and science. These terms mask our un/willingness to listen to those who have epistemologies foreign to our own. We believe our own faith and our own science, but when faced with another we won’t even grant them those words but label them superstition and cynicism. For instance, with the scientific literature complicating a literal seven-day creation, it has become increasingly common to read the Creation poem as symbolism or mythology. And yet, that mythical reading is never extended to the Resurrection? The polarity of faith and science is a sham. Something else is going on. Faith and science do not describe established philosophies or epistemologies, but different ways to describe desires and fears of belief: what we want to believe in and what we are afraid to consider real.
The murder of George Floyd, and the international conversation this heartbreaking event inspired, has not yet extended into our spiritual epistemologies, at the bottom of which lies the traditions, lifeways, and bodies of Black, brown, and Indigenous civilizations. How do we honor the Indigenous heritage of the lands upon which our Adventist churches are built? Do our mission trips help locals (if at all) or just those employed by the church? How can we protest the state-allowed violence against Black and brown bodies and yet double down on the self-policing and shaming Protestant theology demands? While Adventism offers a purportedly less-psychologically damaging eschatology than eternal damnation, our parents still taught us that the one, true God of goodness and love wielded the justified power to kill us for eternity, making God as tyrannical as a corrupt cop.
This is where the dichotomy of faith and science leads us astray. We either declare that all spiritual traditions are superstitious, unscientific attempts at describing patterns from morality to ecological events (except for our own, of course) or we claim they are all real but some (i.e. those that are not of my culture, those that I do not understand) are diabolically misinformed and led astray, littered with traps for the unvigilant believer. Both of these assumptions toward other religions and lifeways maintain the same colonizing demand that other cultures be defined on our terms, not their own.
If we, from Adventists to Atheists or Evangelicals to Agnostics, want to overcome, or simply meditate upon, the different forms of spiritual colonialism, we can look toward foreign fields of study in order to analyze authoritative truth, how we serve and use it as a concept, and where it breaks.
Parapsychology is a weird and oft-ridiculed field of study. You can hear everyone roll their eyes once they understand what it is. Yet it is a field filled with sincere and dedicated scientists who feel called to validate accounts of paranormal or psychic phenomena, also known as psi, the experiencers of which are often ridiculed and excluded by their communities. One such researcher, George P. Hansen, is the author of The Trickster and the Paranormal in which he uses anthropological and sociological concepts like binary opposition, liminality, anti-structure, and taboo to analyze cross-cultural accounts of paranormal activity. He begins the book with a set of questions, four of which serve as pertinent meditations for the faith following the paranormal experiences of Ellen White:
“Fortune-telling is often associated with carnivals, gypsies, and fraud. Yet many saints have had the gifts of prophecy and of knowing hearts. Do fraud and sainthood have something in common? ...
“Why do so many of the U.S. government’s psychic spies become interested in UFOs? [as did Ellen White] …
“Today some liberal Christian Protestant denominations downplay miracles, seeing them as embarrassments, relics from a primitive, superstitious past. Likewise, they view prayer as having only psychological benefits for those who pray, but nothing more. What caused this dramatic shift in beliefs? ...
“Conservatives still see miracles and answers to prayer as God’s intervention in the world. Are these beliefs intellectually backward, superstitious, delusional, and maladapted to the modern world? The conservative denominations are flourishing while the liberal churches decline. Why?”
Hansen’s work is an analysis of the conditions in which psi occurs. “There is a pattern and generally the phenomena either provoke or accompany some kind of destructuring.” Hansen continues, “For instance, the phenomena do not flourish within stable institutions, and endless examples illustrate this.” Uncertainty is a feature, not a bug, of psi, occurring in marginalized, liminal spaces, like Adventism and Spiritualism beginning with the paranormal experiences of teenage girls in patriarchal religious communities or authentic mystical experiences recounted in combinations of original and plagiarized writings.
To us in the modern, rationalized age, this is a difficult concept to accept as it lies outside of our defined boundaries of what exists and what does not. Our rationalism is governed by binary, Aristotelian logic; something is either A or not-A, known as the law of the excluded middle. There is no middle ground, only clear-cut boundaries. The Gospel of John’s ambiguous opening lines was responding to (i.e. against) exactly this kind of logic that has overtaken our theology. The Word was with God and the Word was God, not distinct but confoundingly intertwined. (This is not to say Aristotelian logic is bad, but like any worldview it can be dangerous if we refuse to see anything outside of its walls.)
Hansen writes, “Psi interacts with our physical world, with our thoughts, and with our social institutions. Even contemplating certain ideas has consequences. The phenomena are not to be tamed by mere logic and rationality, and attempts to do so are doomed to failure.” Along with irrationality, anti-structure — instability, marginality, and transition — is a key component to psi phenomena as can be seen in psychedelic visions that evade literal description like that in the first chapter of Ezekiel, seeing a God of the Promised Land in the land of captivity, a respected priest risking religious and social status by a heretical vision, and losing control of language as in, “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” The Bible has plenty of paranormal accounts, yet we are illiterate in this open field, arbitrarily allowing only some things to be real.
Alongside the academic rigor of George P. Hansen’s work, we have the research and anomalies of Charles Fort, who wrote his first book, The Book of the Damned, in 1919. The book begins, “A procession of the damned. By the damned, I mean the excluded. We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.” He compiled news reports of anomalous phenomena from bizarrely detailed synchronicities to UFOs to contemporary plagues of falling frogs.
Fort’s philosophy toward science is aptly summarized and applied to religion by anthropologist Jack Hunter: “Fort employed a philosophy that he called ‘Intermediatism,’ the basic tenet of which suggests ‘that nothing is real, but that nothing is unreal,’ and ‘that all phenomena are approximations in one way between realness and unrealness,’ a kind of ontological indeterminacy.”
With this approach, the universe and all phenomena therein, are in the process of becoming real out of unreality. Everything is fundamentally connected by its relation to existence and not-yet-existence. “The implication is, then, that the extraordinary phenomena and experiences reported by humankind, throughout history and across continents, may well prove fertile ground for investigating not only the nature of religion, culture, and human consciousness, but also of ‘reality’ itself, and should not be brushed under the carpet because they don’t yet make sense, nor because they contradict our currently dominant models of reality.” Hunter goes on to say that we do not need to subscribe to “the supernatural,” but simply need to be aware that our models are more than likely incomplete. “There may well, for example, be more going on than social functional processes, cognitive processes, power struggles, economic struggles, politics, doctrines or ideologies (of course, that is not to say that such factors are not involved, just that they are not necessarily all that is going on).”
A Fortean approach to religion gives us a framework for analyzing scientific, societal, and spiritual anomalies. It decentralizes a claim of truth from a singular order of seminarians, pastors, or church politicians (or scientists, doctors, and state politicians for that matter). Once decentralized, other voices and wisdoms make themselves available to us. We unite ourselves with the rest of humanity rather than insisting on our own culture’s supremacy over others. How lonely we have made ourselves, our spiritual culture little more than veggie meat, wishlist prayers, and praise muzak.
Decentralization may sound like destruction. However, per the work of media theorist, author, podcaster, and comic book writer Douglas Rushkoff, a decentralized form of religion, one striving for liberation, requires revitalizing innovation and participation. Rushkoff explains that our scriptures are the perfect examples of such spiritual innovation:
“The invention of text broke the monopoly that priests had on the collective story. Armed with a 22-letter alphabet, a ragtag bunch of Hebrew slaves went out into the desert and rewrote their reality from the beginning — along with a new set of laws based on living ethics instead of falsely promised rewards in the afterlife. It was an open source proposition — an ongoing conversation called Torah that eventually grew into what we now call the Bible…
“Likewise, the invention of the printing presses turned that sacred document into a mass-produced book. No longer dependent on a centralized priesthood for the holy word, people read the Bible for themselves, developed their own opinions and reinvented Christianity as Protestantism. And today, the emergence of interactive technologies like the computer has revived the open source tradition, providing the opportunity to again challenge unquestioned laws and beliefs and engage with our foundation myths as participatory narratives, as stories still in the making...
“The Bible has been intentionally framed as a dry and sanctimonious tome just to keep thinking people from getting near it. In reality, it’s powerfully dangerous stuff: the ultimate handbook for psychic revolt. It’s filled with sex, temple prostitutes, incantations, incest, travel to other dimensions, conversations with aliens, wars with giants and, on more than one occasion, ritualized anal rape…
“[B]y insisting we ‘believe’ that the Bible happened at some moment in distant history, the keepers of religion prevent us from realizing that the Bible is happening right now, in every moment.”
Rushkoff reminds us that if we only look at our own stories with open eyes, we can see how foreign they are to our world today. Our rationalism and literalism are more pagan to the writers of the Bible than the Baal and Asherah cults that inspired so much of the Old Testament. Elijah is not just a sermon illustration about faith in the still, small voice, but also a sorcerer abducted by a UFO who reincarnates as John the Baptist. Despite attempts of erasure, the psychoactive substances of the priests are still listed, calling to mind the work of medicine wo/men and ayahuasqueros. These are unfamiliar traditions to us today, but they are still part of our story, patiently waiting to be recalled and inspiring us to honor the cultures that have upheld the animist traditions of medicine in the face of institutional skepticism. Our holy words hold wholly other worlds, and they brought us together.
If psi is irrational and real as Hansen tells us, if Fort’s universe is in the process of becoming real, if the Bible is happening now as Rushkoff says, and if all of those arguments are used in favor of our spiritual tradition, then how can we not share them with other religions and lifeways?
Ellen White becomes not just a bigheaded plagiarist, but a subject of bottomless fascination: a clairvoyant who did not allow herself to believe in anything she saw without her conservative theological interpretation. We do not need to subscribe solely to the Great Controversy (we’ll be mailed copies anyways) in order to analyze, learn from, or even experiment with her encounters with psi. As Adventists in an era of multiple apocalypses, now is the time to jailbreak Ellen White’s experiences rather than doubling down on her interpretation of them.
If we are hellbent on understanding the apocalypse, we can learn from those cultures who are already living in a post-apocalyptic world. This same decolonizing and decentralizing logic helps us find value and truth, not only in indigenous spiritualities, but in hoodoo christianities, in gnostic readings of Paul and the gospels, and in those late night conversations when stories of unusual miracles and guardian angels turn into reluctant accounts of spirits or UFOs and other mysteries.
No one’s experience is excluded. These things happen. We can be as animist as we are Adventist. Our feelings become real to each other. The Bible blossoms, its leather binding falls like dried petals off forming fruit. Prayers become candles in a starry cathedral we return to in our hour of need. Ancestors and saints sing lullabies and hymns in our dreams. Church becomes a garden of souls. Communion becomes holier. Psalms become spells. We meet Elijah and Salome in the street.
Bryan Nashed is one of the cohosts of The Badventist Podcast. A graduate of La Sierra Academy, he studied English and Media Studies at UC Berkeley. He works at a nonprofit career center in San Francisco and attends the LIFE Adventist Church in Berkeley, CA.
Image: Salvador Dali’s “Battle in the Clouds,” 1974. Credit: wikiart.org (fair use).
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