The supernatural evokes unease, even within religion.
There is an ambivalent and confused attitude toward miracles and supernatural
phenomena. Elite liberal Protestant clergy and seminary professors
look upon them as embarrassing superstitions from a distant, primitive
past. Secularization and demythologizing typify mainline Protestant
Conservatives accept the reality of miracles and
God’s intervention in the world. Evangelical, Pentecostal, and fundamentalist
churches are growing; the liberal denominations are in decline. Why?
Catholic and Orthodox Christianity retain monastic
orders and have a more mystical orientation than Protestants. But
even there, saints are to be venerated but not imitated. There is
ambivalence toward paranormal phenomena, and the Catechism of the Catholic
Church (1994) prohibits the practice of clairvoyance.
The word supernatural is synonymous with paranormal.
Dictionaries make this completely clear. But religious scholars and
parapsychologists are not comfortable associating with each other. Parapsychologists
avoid the word supernatural by the (legitimate) fear that an association
with religion would taint them. Religious scholars do not wish to
intrude upon science’s territory.
Saints and mystics have produced the most extraordinary
paranormal phenomena ever reported. Yet both mainline religions and
establishment science now largely ignore mysticism and the reality of miracles.
This neglect is an important clue to the nature of the phenomena.
The “irrational” is key. Rudolf Otto addressed
it in The Idea of the Holy (1917), which was subtitled An Inquiry
Into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation
to the Rational. He explained the concept of the numinous, which
is in the realm of the non-rational. He specifically stated that
the numinous is the source of miracles. It is no accident that the
most aggressive antagonists of the paranormal today are affiliated with
anti-religious causes, particularly with extreme rationalism.
Otto understood this very well and wrote: “In truth
the enemy has often a keener vision in this matter than either the champion
of religion or the neutral and professedly impartial theorist. For
the adversaries on their side know very well that the entire ‘pother about
mysticism’ has nothing to do with ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’” (p. 4).
The trickster, an irrational being, was important
in many early religions. Earlier societies made accommodation for
the irrational, and for the trickster. Today, both are forced to
the margins. A similar situation is seen in religion generally.
All religions have accounts of miracles, but as they become more established
and respectable, miracles decline and fade from sight.
There are important exceptions. Spiritualism
and neo-paganism overtly engage supernatural entities. But those
religions have trickster characteristics. Their organizational structures
are dramatically different from traditional churches. They remain
marginal, with little stability or respectability.
The Trickster and the Paranormal
integrates findings from a variety of fields and illuminates the relationship
of religion and the supernatural, with particular attention to mysticism
and the irrational.