J. Arthur Hill

Friend of Sir Oliver Lodge. Popular writer on spiritualism, religion and psychical research. His books included "Religion and Modern Psychology", "Spiritualism, Its History, Phenomena and Doctrine", "Emerson and his Philosophy", "Man is a Spirit", "New Evidences in Psychical Research" and "Psychical Investigations".

The Nature of a Future Life

 - J. Arthur Hill -

          WHILE EMPHASISING the necessity of caution and discrimination in dealing with the messages received from soi-disant spirits, it is nevertheless interesting to see what they have to say on the condition in which they find themselves, and on the question of the essentials in religion. Here of course we enter on perilous ground, for there is no certain method by which we can verify what we may be told. Also there are obvious reasons which forbid us to take as true, any messages concerning their condition, except in a symbolic sense. When a person dies, the matter of which his body is composed certainly breaks down into lower forms. It decays, disintegrates. His brain and sensory nerves are more or less rapidly converted into water vapour, hydrocarbon gases, phosphatic, nitrogenous, and silicic matter. If his individual consciousness somehow continues to exist, it seems certain that his forms of perception must be vastly different. He no longer has bodily eyes and ears; therefore we cannot suppose that he sees and hears in the way that these words connote, though it may be - as some believe - that he possesses a refined counterpart of the material body, and that his methods of perception bear at least some resemblance to those with which we are at present familiar.

This is perhaps a reasonable speculation, as a help to the imagination, but it is certainly no more. Whatever be the truth of the matter, it is indubitable that the perceptions of the surviving spirit must be very different from ours. But it is equally obvious that if a hypothetical entity of this kind wishes to describe to us the state in which he finds himself, he will have to use our language, in order to be understood. The communications about spirits living in houses, attending lectures, reading and writing, and all the rest of it, do indeed seem crude and bizarre, not to say ludicrous. But they may be true enough, or at least as true as the conditions permit. The spirit puts his thought into his side of the "machine," and the form in which it comes out on our side is necessarily determined by the machine and the general conditions governing this side. When the spirit thinks of certain features of his experience, and tries to communicate his thought, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the nearest approximation to that thought in our language of earth may be something like such a phrase as "living in houses," etc.

It is not always the easiest matter in the world to translate into English the exact shade of meaning expressed by idiomatic phrases in even such closely related and well-known languages as French and German. Lafcadio Hearn, after fourteen years' residence in Japan - with the advantage of a native wife, - came to the conclusion that a Westerner could never really understand Japanese thought and language, in consequence of their utter remoteness and dissimilarity from the psychical life and ways of the Occidental. How much more difficult must it be to give accurate or approximately accurate accounts of conditions on "the other side," the points of contact being infinitely fewer than between Britisher and Japanese, who do at least exist in the same world as each other. In what language can we imagine the released and returning prisoner of Plato's famous cave explaining to his still bound companions the sights which he had seen in the upper regions, where he came into touch with reality, and not merely with shadows on the walls of the cave, cast by invisible fires behind? To these prisoners, the shadows are the real things, for they are all that they have knowledge of; and the returned prisoner can do no more than tell his comrades that the shadows are not real, that Reality is somewhat similar, but fuller and more wonderful. And, as Plato remarks, he will probably be laughed at, and perhaps even killed.

The point is, however, that so far as - he hopes to be understood, he must use the language of the fettered prisoners; indeed, until he has learnt something of the new conditions, he will have no other vocabulary. On this analogy, it would seem that we need not be astonished to find a communicating spirit describing the conditions of his existence in very earthly and materialistic terminology. These descriptions may be symbolically true, though obviously false if taken literally. There is nothing new or outrageous in such a suggestion. Ordinary language is full of words which are now understood in a higher, more abstract sense than the one which they originally conveyed. "Spirit" was the escaping breath - spiritus, spirari, Sanscrit phut, "the sound of blowing"; but the abstract meaning is now so familiar to us that we are apt to forget the word's material origin. All abstract ideas are clothed in words which originally represented material things; first percepts, then concepts. Similarly, we must not be too ready to jeer at communications of the character mentioned, especially if there is any evidence for the identity of the communicator. We may speak of a "soul" without being thought to hold the opinion that the soul is material breath; and if language between living men may be interpreted symbolically, why not language which purports to represent the thought of a discarnate individual? - given, of course, sufficient evidence of identity to render the case worthy of serious consideration.

It is clear, from what has been said or indicated, that it will be very difficult to obtain reliable information concerning the "other side." The limitations of our comprehension - owing to the narrowness of our experience - place almost insurmountable barriers in our way. We cannot form concepts except on bases or analogies of percepts; and we need not expect to receive much extension of knowledge by "communications." A child first learns to think of heaven as up in the sky, afterwards learning to purify his conception by lifting it out of the material and spatial categories. Mediumistic communications must be treated somewhat similarly.

As to verification, we can consult the controls of various mediums, comparing their statements, and this is about all we can do. Points on which they differ must be left as debatable, and the common body of teaching accepted as the probably true. We cannot expect that various controls will give identical accounts of their states, for states may vary - almost certainly do vary - as they do here; different travellers bring back different impressions of America, partly because some visit Alaska and others Florida or Brazil, and partly because their own temperaments differ from each other, their likes and dislikes being dissimilar. Consequently we must expect variations in the accounts of that bourne from which it was thought that no traveller returned, even if the returned traveller is quite genuinely what he proclaims himself to be.

But there is less contradiction than might have been expected. Beneath surface variations, there is a deep consensus which is one of the most remarkable features of the phenomena, on any theory whatsoever. As Professor James has said, the majority of these messages appear as if written by the same hand. Through mediums of various times and places, and of various degrees of position and education - from illiterate charwomen up to Stainton Moses and Mr W. T. Stead, with Mrs Piper and Mrs Thompson on the way - there comes a body of teaching as to the conditions of the after-life, and as to the proper aims of this life, which is consistent and harmonious to a quite remarkable degree.

The first notable thing about this teaching is that it does not support the opinions of any Church or sect - or, at least, of any of the principal religious bodies. Neither Roman nor Anglican orthodoxy, neither Wesleyan nor Congregational nor Baptist nor Salvation Army orthodoxy, can claim it as an ally. Whether it comes through the mediumship of a High Church clergyman (whose own opinions conflict with those expressed in the script, as did Stainton Moses') or through a working woman who can neither read nor write, as in the case of a medium who has given me much evidential matter, the teaching is alike in its chief feature of non-agreement with orthodox theology. Above all things, the spirits seem to be nonconformists even to the extent of declining to conform to the views of the Nonconformists! In fact, they object to dogmas of any kind; and are thereby brought into opposition with orthodox Christianity, though not with the teaching of Jesus Himself, which is a very different affair. Like Him, they insist on character, and lay little stress on the importance of creed. A former Honorary Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research (Mr Piddington) remarks that "throughout spiritualistic trance-communications may be observed a uniformly latitudinarian strain; an emphatic protest against theological bigotry and dogmatism of all kinds, irrespective of any particular creed or sect" (Proceedings, S.P.R., xvii. p. 262). It is also noticed by F. W. H. Myers, who remarks that "no one of the various conflicting Churches has been able to claim the general drift of automatic messages as making for its special tenets. The various controversialists, where they have been candid, have admitted moral elevation, but - from their various opposing points of view-have agreed in deploring theological laxity" (Human Personality, ii. p. 133). According to these messages, creed is of small account. Our aims in this our earthly pilgrimage should be inward holiness, charity, love and help for our fellow traveller on life's way; aspiration towards the higher spiritual Powers, coupled with due humility. In so far as we succeed in such endeavour, the guerdon will be ours in the after-life; in so far as we fail, the corrective discipline will continue, until the dross "is purged and burnt away." Spirits of those whom we have loved and lost hover near earth's confines, watching our poor efforts, helping where it may be possible. These succouring souls, their journey ended and their battle won - the earth stage at least - will meet us when the time comes for us to cross the gulf and join them on that farther shore.

That state, however, as we have already indicated, is far removed from Miltonic or Dantesque conceptions of heaven and hell. There is no sudden unalloyed bliss for the "good" - who, as Jesus said, are not completely good, - no everlasting torment in unquenchable fire for the wicked - who, similarly, are not unqualifiedly wicked. There is much of bad in the best of us, and much of good in the worst of us. But we shall go on trying to subdue the bad and encourage the good. The next life will be merely the next stage in this journey; the next stage in a journey towards an End which we cannot yet even dimly conceive; and it is still a state of learning and working and striving. But we are assured that pain as we know it cannot afflict us, that bodily weariness and suffering shall drop from us with the fleshly garment in which they inhere; that any suffering we may be called on to endure will be mostly in the nature of remorse for the evil done in the body. But for all, for good and bad, it will be a beneficent change; not necessarily an immediate improvement in happiness-conditions - though almost without exception it will be this - but certainly a promotion, by entrance into a higher class of the universal school.

This conception is to many people distasteful. It seems commonplace and materialistic, when compared with the gorgeous "beatific vision" of Dante's eternal Rose. And it is a tiring kind of thought. I have every sympathy with those who feel that eternal progress would be a weary business. I feel it to be so, myself; and I should dread the future if I thought it would be an exact repetition of moral striving such as we have had here, where the record of most of us is filled with miserable failures. But there are two things to consider on the other hand. One is that "eternal progress" includes the idea of time, which we may outgrow, and then our whole conception of existence will have to be remodelled in some way at present inconceivable, but which will involve the obliteration of what we mean by endless duration. The other is that, though we may feel tired now, and unwilling to renew the strife, we may feel better after death. We may feel refreshed and ready to start again, as we feel in a morning after a night's sleep, even though, the night before, we felt too weary ever to work again. After the sleep of death, we may be ready to start once more "on our adventure brave and new," to "strive and thrive-fight on, fare ever."(1) The Western mind, essentially active, cannot tolerate the idea of doing nothing. Dolce far niente is not dolce, except in hours of weariness. We want to be doing, learning, helping. Happiness is not happiness unless it leads forward to further work. I think this is how we feel, in our best moments, though we all have periods - some of us frequently - when such an idea is too tiring to tolerate. It is largely a matter of temperament and individual circumstances. But, on the whole, the modern Western temper is decidedly against the static condition of the mediaeval heaven, and in favour of some form of continued activity.

(1) Browning, Rabbi ben Ezra, and Epilogue to Asolando.

I do not argue for the absolute truth (whatever that may mean) of the spiritistic creed. The "spirits" may be liars (we know that the subliminal's moral notions seem to be different from ours), and the true explanation of the whole mass of phenomena may be some theory remote from the obvious one. If so, the spiritist may say there is deep immorality somewhere, Nature lying to us like this. But we must remember that Nature lies to our senses at every turn. We see the sun "rise" and "set," but it is we who move, not the sun. The whole universe lied to us about the plan of its construction, until Copernicus and Galileo came and saw through the deception. Nay, we ourselves lie to children when we say that heaven is up in the sky. But, in all these cases, the belief is perhaps the best for the moment, for the people concerned. Similarly, spiritualism may not be quite true, and may ultimately give place to a truer though less obvious theory. But, for the present, it seems to be a good hypothesis to work on. It is a scientific hypothesis, or at least is as scientific as any that is possible. It is also morally helpful. And it harmonises things - makes a coherent scheme possible. And, as the facts stand and as our faculties are at present, it looks true. These considerations are an ample justification.

"God's gift was that man should conceive of truth

And yearn to gain it, catching at mistake,

As midway help till he reach fact indeed."(2)

(2) Browning, A Death in the Desert.

A physical science analogy may be cited in support. If it be objected that any inference to souls or spirits is metaphysical and therefore unscientific, we can reply that chemistry, which is certainly a science, is metaphysical also. The hypothesis of spirits is methodologically as justifiable as that of atoms. The atomic theory of Dalton - one of the great steps in the development of modem chemistry - is metaphysical, and is still useful, in spite of the still more metaphysical theory of the electrical constitution of matter. The atoms were, and are, useful as thought - images, as counters to reckon with; but no thinker ever supposed that they could possibly be directly experienced - seen, touched - or that they could be anything like what we imagine, even if they could be manifest to our senses. The smallest piece of matter that we can touch or see is a tiny particle, and we carry the process further, imagining the particle to be composed of many still tinier particles. But such an image is sure to be wrong. Suppose a Brobdingnagian, examining our towns: the smallest, particle that is visible to his big, blunt senses is, say, a house. If he evolved an atomic theory, he would imagine that houses are composed of a great number of bits, each of which is itself a miniature house. But he would be wrong, for bricks and stones are quite unlike the structure which they form. So with the atoms which constitute our smallest visible particle. We cannot conceive how they could be experienced by our senses; and, if they could, they would be different from the pictures which we mentally form. But the theory is useful, and may therefore be regarded as true. Similarly with the inference of spirits. We cannot perceive them, but the inference of their existence may be as true as the atomic or electronic theory(3). If chemists had refused to entertain Dalton's theory because it is obviously false, metaphysically, the progress of chemistry would have been seriously hindered. If the theory we tentatively propose in explanation of some psychical phenomena be summarily rejected, it is possible that a new science, not yet satisfactorily named or delimited, will he hindered in like manner.

(3) It may here be pointed out that we have no direct knowledge of the existence of our fellow-beings here on earth. We only derive sensations from certain lumps of matter, and make inferences about their "consciousnesses."

Nevertheless we prefer over-scepticism to over-belief. We want no return of witchcraft or other superstition. We stand for a method rather than for a doctrine. We want to extend careful observation and experiment. To quote Professor James once more:

"I record my bare opinion here unsupported by the evidence, not, of course, in order to convert anyone to my view, but because I am persuaded that a serious study of these trance-phenomena is one of the greatest needs of psychology, and think that my personal confession may possibly draw a reader or two into a field which the soi-disant 'scientist' usually refuses to explore." - Principles of Psychology, ii. p. 396.


The article above first appeared in "Religion and Modern Psychology" (1911, William Rider and Son) by J. Arthur Hill.


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