Harold Anson

Canon Harold Anson, Master of the Temple, was part of a committee appointed in 1937 by the Church of England and headed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to investigate mediumship. He wrote "Concerning Prayer: Its Nature, Its Difficulties and Its Value" (Macmillan and Company, 1916), "Spiritual Healing: A Discussion of the Religious Element in Physical Health" (University of London Press, 1923), "A Practical Faith" (London: George Allen Unwin, 1925), "Thinking Aloud" (London: George Allen Unwin, 1928), "Looking Forward" (William Heinemann, 1938), "The Truth About Spiritualism" (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1941), "I Believe in God" (Frederick Muller Ltd, 1943), and "T. B. Strong: Bishop, Musician, Dean, Vice-Chancellor" (London: S.P.C.K., 1949).

What is Survival?

 - Harold Anson -

          THOSE WHO have studied the facts of psychical research are, as we have already noticed, divided somewhat sharply in their conclusion. Some of them are completely satisfied that there is good evidence that men survive the death of the body and are able to make their presence known to us. These comprise, as I believe, the majority of those who have made a prolonged study of this question, but there are some others who, after equally prolonged investigation, remain exceedingly doubtful as to whether any of the evidence leads us to any certain conclusion on this subject. The difference of opinion is, so far as my own belief goes, due very largely to our preconceptions. Those who reject the evidence for survival would quite certainly also reject all the supranormal facts upon which the great religions rest.

There is, however, a much deeper question involved, and it is this. What do we mean by survival? This word is not so simple in its connotation as we might at first suppose. What is the personality which does, or does not, survive? There is a strong reason to suppose that the powers and experiences of our everyday life are only a fraction of our potential powers and experiences. It seems likely, as Bergson pointed out, that the human brain is an organ of inhibition rather than of manifestation. By this we mean that just as you put blinkers over a horse's eyes because you want to keep them fixed upon the road so that he may not be terrified, or his mind diverted, by looking at the way-side view, so our brain and bodily organs are given to us so that we may specialize on those particular and restricted experiences which appertain to this terrestrial scene, and may not be put out of tone with the happenings of this world by becoming conscious of the vastly extended powers and experiences which would be ours if it were not for the severe restrictions of our sensuous nature.

There would appear to be good evidence that, at all events in the case of some people, there are times when the normal mind, which beholds the universe as we all of us normally do, is superseded, and the human personality can become conscious, if only in a flash, of an inconceivably greater range of knowledge. The phenomena of the infant prodigy suggests to us how little we really know about the potential capacity of the human mind. Mr. Frederic Myers as collected instances of the infant genius (Human Personality, section 309). He gives us there is a list of thirteen geniuses who were able, in their infancy, to make almost any calculation however elaborate, instantaneously, and without any idea how the process was carried out. This power seems to vanish in almost every case when adult life begins. Here is one instance. The child aged six says to his father, "On what day and at what hour was I born?" His father tells him. The child asks, "What o'clock is it at present?" The father answers "7.50 a.m." The child walks on a few hundred yards, then turns to his father and states the number of seconds he has lived. The father notes down the figures and makes the calculation when he gets home, telling the boy he was 172,800 seconds wrong. The boy immediately replies, "Oh papa! You have left out two days for the leap years," which was the case. (Myers's Human Personality, section 310.)

In all these cases the child suddenly loses this power of instantaneous knowledge of recondite mathematical calculation and afterwards shows no sign whatever of having a greater power than any other child. Archbishop Whateley gives the following account of his own powers:

"There was," he says, "certainly something peculiar in my calculating faculty. It began to show itself at between five and six, and lasted about three years. I soon got to do the most difficult sums, always in my head, for I knew nothing of figures beyond numeration. I did these sums much quicker than anyone could upon paper, and I never remember committing the smallest error. When I went to school, at which time the above wore off, I was a perfect dunce at ciphering, and have continued so ever since."

Professor Safford when he was ten years old could work out in his head in one minute a multiplication sum whose answer consisted of thirty-six figures. When he lost this power he had no greater ability than the ordinary man. Mozart began to compose when he was three years old. He saw an elaborate composition as one whole, without any succession of sounds in time. He then gradually worked out as a succession of sounds the idea which first presented itself to his mind as a single complete whole.

The poet Tennyson tells us that there were times when, his whole being at rest, he had an extraordinary conception of reality which was the deepest, reality that he ever knew. Wordsworth (The Prelude, Book 6) gives the account of this sudden sense of overwhelming reality:

That awful power rose from the mind's abyss,
Like an unfathomable vapour that enwraps
At once some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now could say -
"I recognize thy glory"; In such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Gives out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode.

There seems then to be a state of consciousness which comes very rarely and only to a few people, in which the limitations of space and time completely break down, and the universe appears with complete clarity, and without any of the limitations which are forced upon us by our ordinary life. Mr. Dunne has pointed out to us that if we take a careful record of our dreams, we shall find that a considerable proportion of them refer not to the past or the present, but to the future. Mr. Frederic Myers, in Human Personality, gives us quite a long series of well attested accounts of people who have dreamed of experiences which afterwards actually happened, and in some cases of great dangers which were, in fact, avoided, because the dream gave to the recipient a warning of what was about to occur. If we accept as true this and similar experiences, it must lead us to modify very considerably the ideas which we have concerning the nature and limitations of personality.

It would appear then that during the passage of the spirit through this earthly life the power which controls the universe has placed upon our mind a veil which temporarily obstructs our view of reality. We can well believe that this is done for a wise purpose, in order that we shall keep our mind fixed upon the temporary happenings which would, apart from this veil, cease to interest us. Through the choices which we make and interests which we form while we are thus prevented from seeing the larger aspects of reality, while, to use the words of St. Paul, "we see through a riddle in a mirror," we are at the same time progressing in our power of handling the things of eternity. It would appear that the idea of incarnation does not apply only to that supreme instance of the Incarnation of the Son of God, but in some measure applies to all of us.

If we now return to the idea of survival we see that we have to ask ourselves a much more searching question than we may have imagined. It is not likely that our very restricted earthly experience survives in anything like the shape with which we are now familiar. "Flesh and blood," as St. Paul says, "cannot inherit the Kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption." It would rather appear that the process which we call death is a removal of the veil which, during the spirit's sojourn upon earth, has been placed over its highest capacities. In the innumerable instances of the appearance of persons either just before or just after death, it would appear that the crisis which we call death reveals quite suddenly to the person who undergoes it astounding revelations of an enlarged world, and enables them, either before or immediately after death, to communicate their presence to those who are still under the disabilities of the fleshly life. Communications with the departed seem to be most frequent at the moment and generally to diminish rapidly in number and cogency as the years go by.

The stories which we have of communication would seem to suggest that the enfranchised spirit quickly forgets the limitations which had held it own during the present world. All those relationships which were purely conventional and which had to do only with the flesh, the relationships of parenthood, of marriage, of neighbourhood, of nationality, in so far as they did not rest upon underlying spiritual links, fall rapidly away. It is difficult, and becomes apparently increasingly difficult, for the personality to remember names, times, and places. It is quite comprehensible that this should be so. The relationship of the liberated soul with those who are still upon earth is primarily a relationship of their own enlarged spirit with the spirit of those on earth, and to communicate with the spirit enclosed still in fleshly surroundings is not likely to prove a permanent or satisfactory relationship, nor one to be desired as a normal or frequent experience.

We shall, I think, now perhaps understand why it is that communications, if we believe them to be real, are so often jejune and unconvincing. It requires probably a great effort for the departed spirit to put himself back into the condition in which present, past, and future, together with the limitations of space, have great importance. In the communications of "Imperator" with Mr. Stainton Moses, it is constantly emphasized that it is a work of immense difficulty to communicate with this present world. Mrs. Leonora Piper, one of the best-known mediums, seems to suggest that the inhabitants of the next world do not find us very pleasant, nor our surroundings at all congenial.

The conclusion to which I think we shall come is that there is a survival of that which existed previous to the soul's entry into flesh. It is not a survival of all those relationships due to the temporary limitations in which we now find ourselves entangled.

Dr. Walter Matthews says,

"Personal survival is the hypothesis that the centre of consciousness which was in existence before death does not cease to be in existence after death, and that the experience of this centre after death has the same kind of continuity with its experience before death as that of the man who sleeps for a while and wakes again ... One is sometimes tempted to believe that some power - whether beneficent or malevolent I do not know - has determined that we shall never reach certainty on the subject of the life beyond, and that to secure this it has sent a lying spirit into the prophets. The records of psychical research are full of deceit, fraud, and lies. But when one has discounted all this there remains a residuum of established facts which, prima facie, suggest the hypothesis of survival; that at least is my opinion."

I should myself go somewhat further, and say that the facts make survival an assured truth, but that it is a survival of something deeper and more fundamental than the personality with which we are ordinarily familiar in the commerce of terrestrial life.

Source: "The Truth About Spiritualism" by Harold Anson (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1941).


Other articles by Harold Anson...

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