Gerald N. M. Tyrrell

G. N. M. Tyrrell

Educated at Haileybury and London University. In 1923 he decided to devote himself entirely to Psychical Research. Wrote several highly acclaimed works. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1908 and became President in 1945.

Psychical Research and Religion

Is a Future Life necessarily Religious? The Far-reaching Importance of Background

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

          WHAT SIGNIFICANCE has psychical research for religion? Broadly, I think, the answer is that directly it has none but indirectly a great deal. By "psychical research" I mean psychical research and not spiritualism. The distinction has been brought out in Chapter 4, but needs to be repeatedly emphasised, on account of the persistent tendency to confuse the two.

One section of Spiritualism is confessedly a religion, with churches up and down the country; and, in consequence, some people seem to think vaguely that psychical research must be one of the new religions. There is no need at this stage of our inquiry to point out that it is not a religion but a branch of science whose business it is to inquire into the nature of human personality.

What is the indirect significance of psychical research for religion? Let us first ask another question. Supposing we were obliged to admit that there is a future life of a finite kind, what significance would this have for religion? Or, putting the question in other words, need a future life be necessarily religious?

When speaking of a future life, the finite type of existence which psychical research appears to point to, must be clearly distinguished from the immortality which is the goal of the mystic and which consists in the attainment of union with the divine. The latter is essentially religious: in fact, it is scarcely too much to say that it forms the basis of religion, properly so called. But would a finite existence in some other phenomenal world be intrinsically religious? The tendency of European thought during nearly two thousand years has been to say Yes; any kind of life after death is ipso facto religious. Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Paradise - every conception, in fact, of life after death is a religious conception. This view, the inheritance of Christian tradition, causes religious orthodoxy to look with horror on accounts of a future life given by mediums. It may well be that most of these accounts are not to be accepted at their face value: the problem of mediumistic communications is subtle and complex and suggests the existence of much psychological machinery behind the scenes. But, supposing some finite life after death to be a fact, is there any reason why it should he a religious state? It has been frequently stressed that telepathy and precognition give us glimpses of an extended realm of nature. Why should not a future life be another type of natural finite existence? If this were the case, should we be obliged to feel that the sublime conception of immortality had been negatived by it or dragged in the mud? There is a widespread feeling that we should.

Here is an example from the pen of a writer whose views on religion are entitled to great respect. Dr. W. R. Inge writes as follows in The Philosophy of Plotinus(1): "Ghost-stories have no attraction for the Platonist. He does not believe them and would be very sorry to have to believe them. The kind of immortality which 'psychical research' endeavours to establish would be for him a negation of the only immortality which he desires or believes in. The difference between the two hopes is fundamental. Some men are so much in love with what Plotinus would call the lower soul-life, the surface consciousness and surface - experience which make up the content of our sojourn here as known to ourselves, that they wish, if possible, to continue it after their bodies are mouldering in the grave. Others recognise that this lower soul-life is a banishment from the true home of the Soul, which is in a supra-temporal world, and they have no wish to prolong the conditions of their probation after the probation itself is ended, and we are quit of our 'body of humiliation'."

(1) Vol. ii, P. 96.

Of course it is obvious that "the difference between the two hopes is fundamental." But Dr. Inge says that that kind of immortality which psychical research "endeavours to establish" would be, for the Platonist, a "negation of the only immortality which he desires or believes in." The italics are mine. He evidently regards any finite type of existence after death as excluding the Platonist's immortality. Why should it exclude it? If it is possible to pass from this present finite life to immortality, why not from any other? Why is it assumed that we are faced with two mutually exclusive alternatives? Evidently because, once more, of the powerful effect of the philosophy of natural-supernatural dualism. So deeply is this philosophy embedded in Western thought that it is unconsciously assumed that if we pass away from this present world we must pass at once into a religious sphere. Any type of existence we enter by death must be religious; and since one religious type of existence excludes another, it will not do to admit that we pass into any life of an unexalted kind. The evidence for this must be fought in the interests of true immortality. Incidentally, we can see the effect here of the" "Heaviside layer." The issue has become one of beliefs and wishes; not one of empirical evidence.

But suppose that at death we do not leave the "natural realm" at all; or, suppose, rather, that no hard and fast line separates the "natural" from the " supernatural"; the mutual exclusiveness of the two kinds of future existence then disappears. After all, the idea that dying does not launch us into a religious sphere is quite simple when once we have grasped the idea that "nature" need not come to an end where it ceases to be visible. Of course, for all we know, finite extra-terrestial life might be capable of taking many forms and of existing on many different levels; and in some of them the approach to a religious state might be much easier than it is here. The point it that Dr. Inge's protest appears to rest on the assumption that there is a hard and fast line separating the "natural," finite and secular world from the "supernatural," infinite and religious; and that this line is traversed at death.

The views of immortality presented by Christian orthodoxy on the one hand and by Christian mysticism on the other seem to be inconsistent with one another. The first supposes that death plunges us immediately from a mortal into an immortal state; the second that an immortal state is that condition of being which is acquired by discipline and contemplation and by climbing, so to speak, the rungs of the ladder of personality. It is stated by religious contemplatives that through such discipline and training, immortality in this true sense can be attained to some extent even here and now. How is it conceivable that the mere accident of bodily death could achieve all that such training is needed to accomplish? What meaning would there be in spiritual progress if it could? The whole conception of religious mysticism - indeed, the view that the present world is a "vale of soul-making" rather than an end in itself - goes by the board if the fact of death, and not the attainment of spiritual purity and enlightenment, is accepted as the portal to immortality. The philosophy of natural-supernatural dualism is, in fact, inconsistent with the mystical view of religion; while the view that "nature" extends into the life beyond physical death is consistent with it. The traditional conception of the "supernatural" has now become a stumbling block in the way of any reconciliation between science and religion. Thus, while Dr. Inge's position might command considerable sympathy if the alternatives he opposes were really mutually exclusive, there seems to be no valid ground for supposing that they are.

But the main significance of psychical research for religion lies in its promise to reveal a much wider background of thought than that provided by current scientific philosophy. The Anglican Church has commented, up to a point, on the significance which it considers that psychical research and spiritualism have for Christianity in a Report made to a Conference of Bishops of the Anglican Communion held at Lambeth Palace in July and August, 1920. A committee was appointed to "consider and report upon the Christian faith in relation to Spiritualism." It would have been better if psychical research and spiritualism had been more clearly kept apart, but the committee did recogise the distinction between "the investigation of the phenomena of human consciousness ... carried out notably by the Society for Psychical Research" and "the religious cults and practices which have been created on the basis of that is believed to have been discovered and known as Spiritualism." A second committee was appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1940 with a similar object in view, but its report has not so far been published. Briefly, the earlier Report recognised the existence of telepathy and of the subliminal self and the evidence pointing towards communication from the dead. With regard to the latter, the difficulties of proof were emphasised, and the public, it was recommended, should be warned against a blind acceptance of paranormal phenomena without the exercise of reason and will. The Report was balanced and reasonable as far as it went; but according to our present analysis of the situation, it did not bring out the main significance of psychical research for religion.

To see this, we must ask what is chiefly sapping the efficacy of religion in Europe today. The brief answer seems to be that, in so far as religion depends upon a belief in other-worldly realities, it has ceased to carry conviction or to invoke a sense of reality. It has lost its grip on the intellect. People acknowledge the validity of Christian ethics; but they try to harness them to a Religion of Man, because they no longer believe in any higher power. The reason for this is that science has entirely changed our outlook on the universe and our views about the origin and nature of man. The background of thought is totally different from what it was when Christian dogmas were formulated, and the meaning of dogmas depends on the nature of the background. A proposition in any age has to be interpreted in terms of the prevailing background of thought. To take the central dogma of the Christian faith - that Jesus is the Son of God - this, twenty centuries ago, could be interpreted almost literally. It provoked the question: Is it true? Today it provokes the question: What does it mean? The change is due to a changed background of thought. Since those far-off days, science has exalted our conception of nature and has imbued our minds with the idea of the ubiquity and, efficacy of the forces of nature. It has discovered the vastness of space and the minuteness of our little planet, shown causal law at work on every hand, traced our emergence from the brutes, and displaced man and his world from the central position which he once fancied they occupied. Thus, the whole perspective is different from what it was when the universe was thought to centre about one human and divine family. A proposition which seemed to be almost literally true in the earlier epoch recedes into a region of myth in the later. Psychologists now speak of the other-worldly hopes and beliefs of religion as projections from the mind of man made when it was passing through its earlier stages of development - myths which have served their usefulness and are now outworn.

Yet, the protagonists of Christianity continue to state their religion in terms of the mental background which was universal when Christianity began. They indeed make common ground with the scientific humanists; but that is about the project of making a better place of this world. The gulf between the other-worldly position, which is essential to religion, and that which has arisen out of the study of science is becoming wider and wider. The other-worldly part of religion is more and more coming to be looked upon as a cultural survival to be labelled and stored in a museum.

But remember that science up to now has been exploring almost entirely the external world. Look into the. Human individual - look into man himself, and immediately the perspective changes. Psychology is beginning to do so, but so far has not probed deeply beneath the surface. Psychical research has gone a little deeper, and what do we see? The sharp boundary assigned by science to "nature" at once begins to soften and fade. The bodily senses (which show us the external world) are evidently not showing us everything. There is another world: or, rather, there is more of this one: or, again, perhaps it is more correct to say that this world is only a portion of what exists. We have only explored a little way, as the examples given in the above chapters show: and yet the most extraordinary and unexpected things have begun to show themselves. Gradually, as we examine the little evidence we have with close attention, the truth begins to dawn: the perspective begins to reshape itself: the new background of thought begins to form. The world revealed by the senses, explore it as we will with ingenious instruments and mathematical technique, is bounded in principle. The study of the human being reveals more than the human being itself: it shows things happening which are different in kind from those things which happen in the world of sense-perception. Thus, the beginning of a new world perspective is coining into view in which religion and science might, conceivably, make contact with one another in the same intellectual field. This, as I see it, is the thief significance which psychical research has for religion. Whether organised religion will be prepared to welcome such a new perspective, or to effect the reinterpretation of its dogmas in terms of it in the way which the present situation demands, is another question. No doubt a massive inertia lies in the way. The following passage from the pen of a present-day churchman is pertinent. "It will hardly be possible," he says, "to revive religion in this country if a tenacious obscurantist spirit is allowed to govern the decisions of the church. The worst danger to religion is a closed mind. Men trying to understand the deepest problems of life and death and immortality cannot in the twentieth century be expected to regard as beyond the reach of question formulas adopted by fallible Greek theologians in the fifth. They will not allow that Christian thought has been, incapable of progress since the year 451. The newer generations growing up will not be persuaded to accept that view. The congregations in hundreds of our parish churches refuse to accept it. Biblical scholars and students refuse to accept it. School teachers refuse to accept it. Professors of Divinity refuse to accept it. Even the bishops as a whole are not quite sure that they can accept it any longer. While the spirit of ecclesiasticism clings still to the 'idol of tradition,' pays curious homage to the shade of Becket, labours with Newman to magnify the office and the authority of the priest, the unrest in religion increases. The movement of the modern mind goes on. And this movement is not stopped or even impressed by the assertion that these dogmas must be infallible and faultless because they have been taught and believed in semper, ubique, ab omnibus since the organisation of the Church began."(2)

(2) Erasmian, The Unrest in Religion, pp. 102-3.

Increasing knowledge means an ever-changing world-perspective on which religion, if it is to survive, must somehow keep its hold. As Rudolf Otto put it, there must be a "fringe of religious world-theory" without which religion is inconceivable. It is that fringe which today is lacking. The Church, at least the Anglican and Protestant sections of it, seems to be turning its back on this problem - indeed on all the problems of other-worldly religion - and concentrating on social reform. It has been said with some aptness that Christianity is becoming the stalking-horse of social reform. Yet all the time it is on the question of the transcendence by man of this present world that the very existence of religion depends. How can religion flourish if this question is tacitly left in the background? F. C. S. Schiller said a long time ago: "The generality of mankind do not care enough about their future to welcome, a belief which would make it really necessary to look far ahead, and they do not want to care about it. So it is extremely convenient to leave the future life in the realm of vague speculation, to be believed in when desired and to be disregarded when belief would suggest unpleasant reflections, in order to avoid regarding it as a fact to be steadily and consistently kept in sight."(3) But is it wise for the Church also to adopt this attitude? The intellect of man is probing deep. May not a half-belief kept somewhere in the shadows one day expire altogether, and Christian orthodoxy find itself in the museum?

(3) Riddles of the Sphinx, p. 377.

We hear today little about immortality but much about the Church and the planning of Britain. Might one not have expected a very different attitude? Might one not have expected relentless war between the Church and the upholders of materialistic humanism? Would it not have been natural for the Church to insist that the Kingdom of Heaven is a spiritual state and not a state of society to be some day achieved in this world; that Christianity never promised that the world will be any better than it is today, and, although we may hope that it will be, that religion would be no whit Perturbed if it is not; for the significance of human life does not lie in the success of its social institutions but in the fact that individuals are being forged in this "vale of soul-making" into something that will have significance in a wider sphere? How will organised religion react to the fact of ever-increasing knowledge and an ever-changing background of thought? It is an interesting question. 

In the present crisis of the world's history, one thing, however, stands out clearly. It matters profoundly what view is taken of the value of the human individual. Only if we are intellectually convinced that it extends beyond the limits of its atomic consciousness and reaches out, potentially, to that for which the ordinary name is God, can the future of human society be secure. Abyssus humanae conscientia. From the nature of the personality of man springs the possibility of the mystical divine union, the promise of a limitless inheritance, and the hope that in literal truth "this mortal shall put on immortality."

Source: "The Personality of Man. New Facts and their Significance" by G. N. M. Tyrrell (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1946).


Other articles by G. N. M. Tyrrell

• Alternatives to Discarnate Theory
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 1
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 2
• What is Psychical Research?
• What is Science?
• The Significance of the Whole
• The Subliminal Self and the Unconscious
• Is there Anything Besides Fraud in the Physical Sιance Room?
• The Case of Patience Worth: An Outstanding Product of Automatic Writing
• Mrs Willet: Communications Ostensibly Proceeding from the Dead
• What is Science? The Opposition Between Science and Rationalism
• Discarnate Agency: More Evidence on the Discarnate Problem
• Trance Personalities
• Sense-Imagery
• Modus Operandi of the Mediumistic Trance
• The Boundary of the World of Sense
• The Movement of Modern Spiritualism

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