Religious Experience, Fact and Theorem

Some thoughts on religious experience, freedom and fraud.

Some definitions to begin:
A fact is something, an observation, let us say, that is pretty much beyond dispute. It is a fact that when we drop something it will gravitate toward the centre of the earth. It is a fact that you are reading this now. Real facts tend to be repeatable, well witnessed, and attested to by many people of different persuasions. 

A theorem is a well established way of connecting and understanding a set of observations where the observations are small and discrete and in themselves, not in dispute. What may be in dispute is the implication of these facts... what they mean. So the theory of evolution interprets a whole lot of data and comes up with some ideas about origins and species development. A theory, or more correctly, a theorem is not a fact. It is understood that there is room for argument, that there is room for further development and added observations. 

However, a theorem is the ruling interpretation of a set of facts, and the generally accepted interpretation of this set of facts. There is so much evidence in its favour that it is the generally assumed reality- almost a "fact"- when people think about a situation. But a theorem is not a fact. A theorem accepts it does not have the whole answer.

An hypothesis is a tentative explanation of a set of observations. The person who is hypothesising says "I have a set of "facts" which might be explained in the following way." In science a hypothesis is tested. The researcher tries to destroy it or disprove it. Hypotheses that seem very strong and withstand much testing may contribute to or form a theorem. Hence the name hypo-thesis. An hypothesis is less than a thesis or theory.

Hype is the opposite. Hype is short for hyper-. Hyper means "above" not "under."
I would describe hype as an overstatement... as the elevation of an hypothesis, or even of a theory, to a level of facticity that it does not have.

The relevance of all this is that we live by hypothesis and theory. There are relatively few undisputed facts. And lots of these facts are relatively unhelpful on their own; they don't tell us much. It is the organising of facts, and the interpreting of the groups of facts that we meet, that provides knowledge. 

The significant thing is that we then act and make decisions on this knowledge. We live by hypothetical knowledge! Yet often we reify this knowledge. That is, we make it real. We forget that it is based on hypotheses and theorems, and too easily believe it is TRUTH, not a theory contingent on many other theories, and very dependent on our particular personal experiences. 

There is no doubt that some knowledge is more certain than other knowledge. At one end of the spectrum there are very clear, predictable and repeatable phenomena which we understand quite well. Some of this is so universal and so little in dispute that we call it Law. Hence the Law of Gravity, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. 

At the other end however, are events we understand very poorly. Human behaviour is not easily predictable, and we often don't understand ourselves, let alone others. And in our human experience there is much that is extraordinarily difficult to even describe to another person, let alone repeat or test as an hypothesis. The neat and rigorous method used by science to gain knowledge begins to fail when we apply it to people, and especially to the areas of religious perception and experience. 

Very often though, we behave in religion as though we know in exactly the same way as we know physics. So churches are inclined to make statements about spiritual issues as though they were as rigorously tested and verifiable as the physics that keep a jumbo jet in the air.

Spiritual and religious knowledge is perhaps the most contingent of all knowledge, and yet it is the area of knowledge we cling to most closely. It is the knowledge that is keeping the jumbo jet of our life in the air. Unless we happen to be at 30,000 feet we are going to be less worried about an attack on the theory of airfoils than we are on our own personal spiritual theories; that is, the basic beliefs we have about who and what we are, and what our life means.

I want to talk about this in real life, and what it can mean.

I received a phone call one morning from a young woman in a house near our church. She was badly frightened by "things moving on their own" and could I please help them stop it.

I found two nice country kids who had just begun university. One of the families had bought the house for them to live in, and the kids had taken on a couple of boarders, also uni students, to help with the rent. All had gone well for most of the first term until the boy came back to the house late one night when everyone else was out and found things moving on their own. The ladle in the kitchen was swinging on its hook. Various doors were shutting loudly on their own. It had been a frightening experience which he had at first written off to a breeze through a window, or something similar. 

A similar experience happened to the girl a few days later. The incidents continued… it often sounded as though someone was moving around the house when no one else was home, and as they compared notes and tried to work out what was going on they found no rhyme or reason in the happenings. They could rule out pranks. By the time they rang me, a complete stranger, they were badly frightened, all the more so because no one would believe them.

I visited with one of our church elders. He was an wizened old war veteran, hard-headed and skeptical. He thoroughly searched the outside of the house for cracking in the foundations, cracks in the soil and anything else he could think of. He didn't quite interrogate the young people, but by the end of our conversation they were clearly either quite genuine, or the two most accomplished liars and actors I have ever met.

I asked them about the others living in the house. One of their boarders, another 18 year old girl, had let her older boyfriend move in and share her room. Neither of them were particularly happy with this; l think the girl was a bit weird in their assessment. They were rather relieved that she and the boyfriend were moving out to go to Perth in fortnight or so. The other boarder was a typical young man… he heard and felt nothing. He was no hassle, came and went, paid the rent, and did his share of dishes.

What could I do? I told them how one of the really big stress inducers in life was to shift house. I pointed out how they were all in their first move from home, other than the live in boyfriend. Not only this, they were also beginning university with all its new pressures. The other girl was also beginning a sexual relationship, another new and high stress thing. 

I also told them about how younger people, apparently more often young women who are under stress, seemed to be linked with poltergeist activity; i.e. a ghost who makes rapping and tapping noises and other disruptive events. 

I said that on first assessment perhaps this might be an explanation… and suggested a course of action. We would pray for them and their safety. We would pray for the girl and her boyfriend. I suggested that we then wait and see what happened when she left. They were more than happy with this, so we prayed, and I left with a promise to return and the invitation to ring me any time.

The strange girl and her friend went to Perth, and all the odd things stopped happening. The young woman who had first rung me told me later how good it had been for them that someone had actually believed them… it had been very lonely, and hurtful, I suspect, to be laughed at and not taken seriously by friends and family. It almost sounded that being taken seriously was as important than the actual phenomena being stopped!

So what happened here? In the church it is often the case that we would say we "cast out an evil spirit." Others would say that we "laid a ghost to rest." A couple of members of the congregation told me how the history of the house was not happy… perhaps it had "a bad aura" which needed cleansing.

What really happened?

The facts are that two young people, impressionable and alone, found things moving, and heard noises, when there should have been stillness and silence. This kept happening and they could find no explanation that satisfied them. They were very frightened. We prayed. The happenings stopped around the time one resident of the house moved out.

Some religious theorems exist about poltergeists. Many people would say they scarcely deserve the term theorem… they are shaky hypotheses at best. And, really honestly, no one actually knows (in the terms of this essay) what prayer is or does.

I put an hypothesis to the kids and embarked on a course of action. It could not be repeated… the girl was not there to have another first boy friend and see if that made things move. We could not test if she really did make things move. Maybe the two country kids were so spooked that they really were imagining things… a few late nights, some co-incidence and stress, and being on your own in an empty, can be very convincing. Maybe what I did was really a sort of psychological trick… put their minds at ease with some action… showed some love in a prayer so they could relax. Or maybe they were causing the movement and the love and something to call the phenomena let them relax, and the telekinesis all stopped. And yes, perhaps it was all as I wondered… the girl was hooking into some bygone sadness of the place and it was being channelled through her into the present physical reality. The prayers and the power of God cleaned up the mess.

I have no idea… and never have had any more ideas than these. I don't think it is possible to know.

What I do know is that Christians, and people of other persuasions, are very prone to take a few facts, dress them up---   not just in an hypothesis that is not worthy of testing, or as a theorem that could be found wanting---  but dress them with the undeserved trappings of scientific Law. "God Said To Me…..  The Bible says... You can cast out evil spirits....." This language often says more about social control in a church group, and about individual naïveté, than it does about what is really happening. It also says a lot about people's desire to be able to name and control fearsome and inexplicable (i.e. so far un-controlled) phenomena. 

By contrast, others of us are sometimes perhaps unduly skeptical… giving our own (skeptical) hypotheses unwarranted authority. It would be better if we were all more honest about the few facts we have in the area of human experience, and more open about our hypothesising and tentative attempts to understand. 

My elder and I were correct, I think. We were skeptical. We tested all the obvious explanations we could find. When they seemed to be ruled out, we embarked on a tentative hypothesis, but most of all we did it in Christian love. We loved the two young people in word and deed. We did not condemn the girl who may have been at the centre of the issue. We allowed a kind of holy agnosticism about what was going on. 

I think that if that agnosticism is not present in the actions and theologising of a church, it has lost its ethical and Christian bearings. It has become prescriptive of people's experience and lost its respect for their humanity. This does not mean it should not take action over what it sees and dangerous or even evil. But it does avoid a lot of stupidity and damming of people with the theological and philosophical fashions of the moment.

It also means that one avoids the hype: as in the kind of church which begins a power ministry casting out demons, delivering from evil and all that stuff that happens dramatically on Sunday night with much loud prayer… but often seems to be accompanied by narrow conservative theology… and often is not accompanied by physical help and real friendship.

Finally, in my own experience of the Divine, this holy agnosticism has set me free. I am able to say I do not know very much at all. I am free of all the church theorems about how God should be met and heard and felt. I can be me, and look at the facts of my experience, not having to filter them through someone else's experience for validation. I can see evil beyond personal piety, and find much to excite me beyond the scams of a John Edward or a glib Pentecostal preacher....  because I can really look at what is happening to me and at what I am seeing and hearing.

November 2002



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