E. Garth Moore

Chancellor Garth Moore was the judge of the Consistory Courts of Durham, Southwark and Gloucester. He was a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he was Director of Studies in Law. After many years in practice at the Bar and in various judicial capacities he was ordained priest in the Church of England in 1962. He was also President of the Churches' Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies.

Christianity and Psychical Research

- E. Garth Moore -

          SO FAR in this book we have been concerned with a review of the field of psychical research. It is a wide field and not all of it has been covered. But enough has been covered to enable the reader who comes fresh to the subject to form some view of the nature of the psychic. It is an interesting field of exploration. But it is more than that; it is important in its bearing on both natural science and religion. In this chapter we shall consider primarily the relationship between psychical research and Christianity.

As has been said already, it is (in my view and in that of many others) idle to deny the existence of some psychic phenomena, notably telepathy, precognition, apparitions and poltergeists. Their explanation, however, is quite another matter. But whatever may be their explanation, all these phenomena have one thing in common; they reveal that the ordinary laws of physics as at present understood, useful though they are for the ordinary affairs of life on this planet, do not tell the whole story and present but a partial picture of existence. One can go further and state that, if but a single psychic phenomenon can be proved to have occurred, that alone is enough to require a revision of our formulation of the laws of physics or else an acknowledgement that there is a dimension beyond the physical. This, in turn, has a bearing on religion, for our religion depends in large measure, if not totally, on our experience of the Universe around us, even while it is concerned with matters beyond this life and this Universe. The here-and-now is of necessity our starting-point, however widely we may range in the realms of deduction and speculation, and, if psychic phenomena occur, our here-and-now is different from the picture presented by an orthodox formulation of the laws of physics. To the materialistically minded natural scientist, therefore, we would say, 'Look at the evidence. If you find there nothing to suggest that the psychic exists, you are justified in ignoring it and resting content with what you already know and with the formulation of the laws which you have deduced therefrom. If, however, you find enough to suggest that the psychic may be a fact, encourage its further exploration as you would encourage the further exploration of any other possibility. If, however, you go further and discover that the psychic is, as is claimed, a reality, then you must consider its bearing on the laws of physics which you have already learnt, for it is clear that, as at present expressed, they are inadequate to explain the nature of things.'

The theologian, too, has a duty to look at the evidence. Hitherto, all too often, he has either ignored the psychic altogether, or dismissed it as nonsense, or has acknowledged its reality, but shunned it as being of the devil. To ignore it is odd in those of whom the majority may be expected by profession to believe in a non-material dimension to Creation. For a Christian theologian to treat it as nonsense is to demonstrate how deeply he has been infected by the comparatively modern and now slightly outdated wave of secular materialism. To regard it as a diabolical reality is at least logical and is to adopt an attitude which deserves to be taken seriously. It is, however, an attitude which those adopting it may reasonably be challenged to defend. There are arguments to support their view, just as there are arguments against it. But they both require to be stated and examined. If arguments can be advanced to show that in some respects psychical research is inimical to religion, arguments can also be advanced to show that it is of value to religion. Let us see if we can strike some sort of balance-sheet.

On the credit side for psychical research several items can be put; but there is one of quite outstanding value to the cause of religion. If psychical phenomena be established as realities, it is clearly shown that what we now call the material does not comprise the whole of existence. There is a dimension beyond what at present we call the purely material. It may be spiritual, or it may be psychic; but it is, in terms of current physics, nonmaterial, and this is the essence of religion's claim. If the material be all that exists, then Christianity, together with most, if not all, other religions, is false. If there be something beyond the material, then present-day materialism is false. That it is materialism which has been shown to be false is the claim of many psychical researchers. The claim must not be overstated. There may be a spiritual dimension as well as a psychic dimension. We may ultimately discover that there is no essential difference between the material, the psychic and the spiritual; that they shade imperceptibly into each other; and that it is simply a question of degree. But the terms, material, psychical and spiritual are convenient terms for denoting three broad categories, the psychical being the middle category, shading off at one end into the material and at the other end into the spiritual. With a recognition of the reality of the psychic factor and with the advent of more knowledge concerning it, we may eventually reframe the laws of physics so that they take account of the psychic as well as of the physical. If we do, it is quite likely that our extended understanding will be regarded as an extension of physics and it will be forgotten that it is the psychic which has given rise to the extension. It will, nevertheless, be a fact that a new dimension has been introduced and that that new dimension is what we now call the non-material. Be that as it may, the importance of establishing the existence of the non-material - of something which does not conform to the known laws of physics - is enormous. It establishes that basically the materialists are wrong and that the adherents of religion are right.

Let us examine this further in the context of survival of bodily death. A medium may give messages purporting to come from a deceased person, tending to establish the identity of that person, containing information known to the deceased, but unknown to the medium. As has been seen,[1] this may not conclusively prove survival, because there are always the possibilities of telepathy and precognition as logical alternatives. But, if they do not prove the identity of the alleged communicator, they certainly prove the abnormal sensitivity of the medium, for she has become possessed of information by some means other than the material. This in itself makes survival a much more probable hypothesis, for it indicates that there is something beyond the material, which in turn increases the probabilities that there is something in our make-up which is non-material and which, therefore, may well survive the dissolution of our material bodies. It is, in fact, strong corroboration of the Christian doctrine of the life everlasting, even though it be not conclusive proof of the truth of that doctrine[2].

[1] Chapter 4.
[2] Such survival is not necessarily proof of everlasting life. See what follows.

It may be argued that, for the committed Christian, the promises and power of the risen Christ should be sufficient guarantee without the help of adventitious aids. That is true, so far as it goes. But there are plenty of persons who are not committed Christians. For them this type of evidence may be exactly what is required to tip the balance and to turn them into committed Christians. Christianity can certainly survive without this sort of corroborative evidence; but the evidence can greatly strengthen Christianity's claims, confirm its adherents and confound its opponents.

Thus viewed, psychical research is the ally of religion in that it corroborates religion's basic claim that the nonmaterial is a reality. This remains true, even for those who take the extreme view that psychic phenomena are diabolical, for the Devil himself, if he exists, is not material, but a spirit, and, whatever characteristics he may possess belong to the realm of the non-material.

It is a Christian tenet that there is a life after death. As has been seen, this is not conclusively proved by psychical research, though psychical research has made the truth of this belief more probable. Still less has psychical research established that life hereafter is life everlasting. On the evidence it is perfectly reasonable at times to believe that communications 'from the other side' in fact emanate from the source from which they purport to come, while still realising that the proof is not conclusive. But, while allowing that such a belief is reasonable, it must also be allowed that, even if, on a balance of probabilities, survival of bodily death be established, it does not follow that life hereafter is life everlasting. For all we know, from this type of evidence, such life may be as transitory as life on this earth. It may have its span and then be extinguished. Psychical research provides no evidence to the contrary. But psychical research does show that it is more probable that the Christian doctrine of the life everlasting is true. At the lowest estimate, psychical research shows that survival of bodily death is more probable than extinction, and some of the evidence shows that such survival is much more probable. This, for those who doubt, is a great leap forward. If survival of bodily death can be established, or even rendered probable, the great step forward has been taken. The next step, from mere survival to survival for all eternity, is a much smaller step. If survival at all occurs, it is not unreasonable to envisage it as going on for ever or as being but one further stage in a process which goes on for ever. This is all the more so having regard to our ignorance concerning the time-factor.[3] For all we know, time, as we understand it here, does not exist outside the material universe. It is, as it were, a framework for the material and can be shed together with the material. If however, it does exist outside the material universe, it may exist in a form very different from anything that we can envisage, and the words eternal and everlasting may have ceased to have meaning.

[3] See chapter 3.

Be all this as it may, in establishing the existence of the non-material the contribution of psychical research to the cause of religion is enormous and it is not confined to the question of survival. Not the least of its contributions is in the extent to which it renders the Bible credible. It was materialism which for so many made the Biblical miracles so hard to believe. By demonstrating that the material is by no means all that is real, psychical research has rendered the miraculous far more credible. With the example of Dorothy Kerin[4] before us, we need no longer boggle at the Biblical miracles of healing. With the modern examples of ESP around us, we can the more readily accept our Lord's ESP[5] as literal fact and not as mythical hyperbole. In the light of modern cases of apparent possession,[6] we shall be more cautious in attributing the Biblical accounts of possession to the recorders' immaturity of understanding of matters medical. With the evidence which psychical research provides of nonmaterial forces, we can the more readily accept at their face-value the Biblical references to angels and to devils. With experience of apparitions in our own time, we can the more readily accept the literal truth of the accounts of our Lord's post-resurrection appearances. In short, in the light of psychical research, the scepticism engendered by Victorian materialism is cut down to size. The Bible is not proved to be true; but much of it is shown to be within the bounds of possibility, and the leap of faith is removed from the category of a foolhardy act by a blind man into that of a responsible decision by one who has weighed the pros and cons.

[4] See p. 82 et seq.
[5] See p. 8.
[6] See Chapter 10.

So much for the credit side. It is submitted that the assets there shown are considerable. What of the debit side?

For those who take the Bible seriously the most formidable condemnation of persons who have any truck with the psychic is based on certain passages in the Bible, and particularly in the Levitical writings. It is claimed that these and other passages utterly condemn psychic practices. In Deuteronomy,[7] for example, we read: 'When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone that maketh his son or daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee.'

[7] Matthew 18. 9-17.

In Exodus[8] it is written: 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.'

[8] 22. 18.

In Leviticus[9] we find: 'Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after the wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God.'

[9] 19. 31.

And again (Leviticus)[10]: 'And the soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards, to go a whoring after them, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people.'

[10] 20. 6.

And again (Leviticus)[11]: 'A man also or a woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.'

[11] 20. 27.

Largely on these passages formidable arguments are presented against psychic practices. They are very well marshalled by Canon Stafford Wright in Christianity and the Occult[12] and they merit close scrutiny.

[12] Scripture Union (1971).

The first point to be observed is that one needs to go back to the Hebrew in order to understand what these passages mean, for the English translation is misleading. This book is no place for the examination in detail of the linguistic arguments;[13] it has been clearly done in Nothing to Hide.[14] Briefly, the argument amounts to this: that the prohibition in Exodus 18 and the condemnation in other passages are aimed at some practices which were fraudulent, at others which were sordid, and at any which were idolatrous. For example, the word which has been translated into English as familiar spirit is the Hebrew word, OB or OBH or OUV. This literally means an empty wine-skin or wind-bag, and became associated with the fraudulent practices of those who at a séance surreptitiously produced squeaks from it and indulged in ventriloquism for the deception of the sitter who had visited the 'medium' to obtain information from the dead. The type of necromancy at which the prohibition was aimed was not simple communication with the dead, but one which involved highly objectionable practices with corpses.

[13] Nor am I fitted to conduct such an examination.
[14] By the Revd Leonard Argyle, B. D. (Churches' Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies, 1970).

It is necessary also to take into account the background against which these items of the Law were promulgated. Though their origin purports to be about the time of the Exodus, in the form in which we have them they are several centuries later. They reflect the entry of the Jews into the Promised Land and their precarious foothold there, where they were under constant temptation to forget their vocation as the Chosen People and to flirt with, and even adopt, the religions and practices of the pagans around them. This was the idolatry against which both prophet and priest inveighed, and the psychic practices which came under their condemnation were inextricably entwined with these forms of idolatry. Against this background the weight to be attached to the prohibitions assumes a different proportion. Only the staunchest fundamentalist holds that the whole of the ancient Law is still to be observed. It is unlikely that today many would hold that the death-penalty should be imposed on a witch or a wizard in accordance with Exodus 22, 18 or Leviticus 20, 27, or on those who commit adultery in accordance with Leviticus 20, 10. It is equally unlikely that they would subscribe to the law that 'if an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then the ox shall surely be stoned'.[15] We no longer feel it incumbent upon us to wear fringed garments[16] or to refrain from rounding the corners of our beards[17] or to abstain from eating pork.[18]

[15] Exodus 21. 28.
[16] Deuteronomy 22. 12; Numbers 15. 38; Deuteronomy 22. 12.
[17] Leviticus 19. 27. and 21.5.
[18] Leviticus 11. 7. For some reason, which he does no explain, Canon Stafford Wright is irritated by this argument (op. cit., p. 119).

A degree of intelligent eclecticism is demanded in our acceptance of much in the Old Testament and the electic approach is consonant with the idea of progressive revelation. It is significant that the tone of the New Testament differs markedly from the ferocity of the Old Testament. The woman taken in adultery was merely told to sin no more.[19] Peter was told in a vision that all meats are clean.[20] 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth'[21] gives place to foregiveness 'until seventy times seven'.[22] It is also relevant to our discussion to note that Simon the sorcerer was rebuked by Peter, not for sorcery, but for the offence of simony to which he has given his name, which is the attempt to buy spiritual gifts with money;[23] and it would seem that the damsel possessed with a spirit of divination who followed Paul about in Philippi grieved Paul, not by her gift, but by following him about and being a nuisance.[24]

[19] John 8. 3-11.
[20] Acts 10. 9 et seq.; 11. 1-10.
[21] Matthew 5. 38; Exodus 21. 14; Leviticus 24. 20. Deuteronomy 19. 21.
[22] Matthew 18. 22.
[23] Acts 8. 9-24.
[24] Acts 16. 16-18.

In the Old Testament itself, there are plenty of indications that psychic gifts are not to be condemned. The prophets, who had these gifts in great measure, are held in great honour on account of them. Joseph not only interpreted dreams, but used a cup for the purpose of divination.[25] Daniel, a 'man greatly beloved' by the Lord,[26] received visions, interpreted dreams and (as we should say today) was credited with the possession of ESP of a high order. So was Elisha, and by means of it he was able to warn the King of Israel of the movements of the army of the King of Syria.[27]

[25] Genesis 44. 1-5.
[26] Daniel 10. 11.
[27] 11 Kings 6. 8-12.

It is clearly impossible to extract from the Bible a condemnation of everything psychic. Probably nobody who has considered the matter would attempt to do so, for it would involve the condemnation of an innate quality which, whether they enjoy it or not, some persons possess and which perhaps is latent in all persons. Any such condemnation would include our Lord himself within its ambit, for he exhibited ESP in a marked degree. The attack presumably is confined to certain psychic practices. But, even when the attack is thus limited, it is difficult to sustain. Witchcraft (at least of the black variety) is to be condemned, both because of the nature of its practices and because it is frankly satanic. But a God-fearing modern medium is not to be equated to the fraudulent medium condemned in Deuteronomy, chapter 18, nor with the sordid necromancer of those days. And, since some persons are endowed with psychic gifts, they cannot be criticised when these gifts manifest themselves spontaneously, and their owners can scarcely be condemned for using, or even developing, them.

But that is not to suggest that the Bible is to be ignored. One thing emerges clearly from an over-all reading of it, namely, that our God-given talents, whatever they be, should be used to the glory of the God who has given them. To pervert them to other purposes may well be to fall within the Levitical condemnations. A good discretion is required, and wariness is to be commended. There are times when St John's warning is apposite:[28] 'Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come: and even now already is it in the world.'

[28] 1 John 4. 1-3.

On a more practical plane, those who eschew all psychic practices often claim that it renders its practitioners unstable and opens the door through which undesirable forces may take possession of them. The claim is probably exaggerated; but it is not without some substance. Most certainly those who are not by nature of a stable equilibrium should avoid, so far as they can, all contact with the psychic. This is not always easy, for a person may well be both schizophrenic and also endowed with psychic gifts which force themselves to the surface. But certainly the unstable should try to keep themselves free from psychic influences. The danger of possession is real, though slight. It can occur, or, at least, it looks as though it does sometimes occur. But when one has regard to the large number of practising spiritualists who do their best to encourage psychic manifestations and who exhibit no sign of being possessed (other than when actually in trance or semi-trance), the danger is seen to be of no great proportion. When, however, it does occur, it can be devastating. It is, therefore, sound practical policy to warn persons, especially the young, not to play about light-heartedly with the ouija-board or with anything else pertaining to the psychic. For the serious psychical researcher it is a calculated risk. As in other fields of exploration, it is a risk which is justified, and, as in many a field of research, without risk no advance can be made. Apart from the intrinsic value of the study of the psychic for its own sake, it has its immediate practical value. There are those who are worried by psychic manifestations, whether they be of apparitions or poltergeists or anything else, and who require to be reassured and helped. Reassurance and help can be given only by those who have made some study of the psychic, inadequate though at present their knowledge be. Exorcism can prove beneficial to the patient; but, like any other operation, it should not be attempted by those who have not acquainted themselves, so far as possible, with the evil which they are seeking to remove, and this can be achieved only by a study of the subject.

Another obvious danger, but one which is seldom mentioned, is the danger of being frightened. Psychic manifestations can be alarming, and fright can be very traumatic.

But the greatest danger of all, to my mind, is one which is never mentioned. It is a subtle one and it is a spiritual danger rather than a psychical or physical one. It is the danger of triviality. It is the danger into which those persons fall who are constantly seeking communication with the departed. Apart from the very doubtful nature of many of these alleged communications, and apart from the utter lack of value which so often they exhibit, the danger lies in the recipient's resting content with these trivialities and ceasing to seek a deeper and real communion with God. That is the basic danger. But it is one which overflows into other channels. It can lead to an abandonment of the search for truth by other more orthodox and more strenuous and more profitable means, calling for a measure of self-discipline. In can lead to a dangerous reliance on supposed and unsure guidance from beyond the grave in matters affecting this life, with a consequent surrender of initiative in those mundane matters which are committed to our own care and judgement. It provides in fact a meretricious easy option, lulling its victims into a false feeling of security. The consequent malaise can manifest itself in a number of different ways; but basically it stems from an often unavowed, but nevertheless real, displacing of God from his proper position of centrality in our lives; and that is the true idolatry, rightly condemned in the Levitical scriptures. And, for all we know, actively promoted by Satan as a subtle and powerful weapon wherewith to deflect souls from God.

Let us now take a look at our balance-sheet. So far as the cause of religion is concerned, we can now see that the psychic provides entries on both the credit and the debit side. It is in some respects an ally of religion. In other respects it can be inimical to religion. Our assessment of where the balance lies is of necessity a value-judgement. It must be clear by now that my own assessment is that the psychic, properly regarded and properly approached, is a powerful ally to religion though no substitute for it. Whether this assessment be right or wrong, the psychic is, for good or ill, a factor which both physics and religion must take into account. It must, therefore, be studied. To say that it must be properly approached is not to differentiate it from anything else which is potentially powerful. Fire and water can be very dangerous as well as very beneficial, and experiments with them should be conducted with circumspection. The same is true of investigations into the psychic. It is not for dabblers, and the serious researcher should be circumspect. As a counsel of perfection, he should be God-fearing; but, whether or not he acknowledges the Creator, he should approach his task with that reverence for the wonders of Creation and for the truth which informs every true scientist whether he be theist, atheist or agnostic.

'Magna est veritas et praevalebit.'


"Believe it or Not: Christianity and Psychical Research" by E. Garth Moore (Oxford: A. R. Mowbray, 1977).

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