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.

The Movement of Modern Spiritualism

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

1. The Attitude of Spiritualists

          LOOKING AT the mass movement of spiritualism which has increased so greatly during the last twenty years*, one cannot fail to be struck by the attitude, not only of the spiritualists, but also of their opponents. The attitude of spiritualists in general appears to ignore the diversity of difficult points with which the subject bristles and to treat it as a homogeneous whole. Thus they get rid of the need for putting forth the mental effort required for constant discrimination. Once they have sailed into the spiritualistic sea their attitude is one of easy acceptance. This is not true of every spiritualist, but it is the attitude which characterizes a large part of the movement. Psychical phenomena form a difficult subject at best in which balance and poise are needed more than anywhere else. The spiritualists have proceeded to make it more difficult by turning it into a religion.

* ISS note: This chapter was written in 1931.

Examination reveals spiritualism as a whole to be a mixed mass of truth and falsehood; of real facts distorted in the presentation; of unrecognized meanings; of the deception which difficult circumstances have brought upon people of limited vision in their attempt to deal with what really transcends their scope; the distortion of true facts which results from an attempt to compress them into limited language, and the failure to recognize things for what they are. The mind which is alive to the baffling problems which psychical phenomena present realizes the need for constant discrimination and drastic criticism. It finds itself in diametrical opposition to the average spiritualistic outlook which cannot see that psychic facts must be assimilated into the general scheme of things, but is content to leave them in the air, ignoring the scientific claim for continuity. Spiritualists rather tend to treat their subject as if it were a newly discovered country lying in independence of everything else, within special boundaries of its own, and to assume without argument that it must be accepted or rejected en masse, instead of being sifted through. How much evidence do you require to accept spiritualism and join in the movement? This is the way in which the typical spiritualist looks at it. It is a way which gives the genuine enquirer the feeling that the spiritualist and he are talking in different languages. Spiritualism is not the name for a compact and definite thing, but rather for a popular reaction towards a difficult branch of enquiry. Psychical phenomena cannot be properly studied under the poster-coloured enthusiasms of a popular movement, especially of a popular religious movement.

The typical opponent of spiritualism betrays, on the opposite side, an even stranger reaction. He is not primarily interested to know the truth about psychic phenomena at all, but appears to be obsessed by a name and by the associations which it carries for him. Spiritualism for him means the essence of everything uncanny and dangerous, and he is convinced that it has a peculiar power of sending its followers mad. Judging by the unbalanced way in which many people embrace spiritualism, this latter fatality might well be commoner than it is; but in point of fact unbalanced people become mad if they become too exclusively engrossed in anything, and an equal case could probably be made out against religion.

The fact that institutional Christianity in all its branches has always set its face against the practice of spiritualism is one which deserves notice. When it is remembered that modern spiritualism is the direct descendant of the necromancy and magic of ancient times which formed part of that dark background that hung like a pall over the boundary of the sensual world, the root of its hostility is not hard to understand. The religious opposition to the modern movement, though partly no doubt due to mental inertia, is also in part due to a lively sense of the dangers which it believes to exist in the practice of the mediumistic trance. Nor are these dangers by any means imaginary, and it is perfectly true that caution, poise and judgment are absolutely essential if they are to be avoided. But the chief objection of the Churches is not based on the subtle and deceptive difficulties of trance mediumship which have been pointed out in the last chapter, but on its own theory of diabolism. It presupposes that all communications through mediums are the work of evilly disposed beings of a non-human type who deliberately impersonate those who are purporting to communicate. That such beings may exist we cannot deny. We know nothing to the contrary. On the other hand, if we believe in universal human survival of death, there is scarcely need to go beyond the human race in order to find beings who would fit the description. Stand, for instance, on the pavement at Hammersmith Broadway on Saturday night, and imagine the crowd there, having passed out of this life, as crowding round a sensitive, finding there a channel of communication open to its familiar world. A good deal that is false and unedifying in the communications could be accounted for without going further.

Indeed, on the supposition that the clearer of the communications do emanate from discarnate human beings, we should be obliged to assume that some guarding of the sensitive must take place in order to keep out indiscriminate interference, otherwise there would be a discordant medley and nothing coherent would get through at all. For the channels of communication are few, and the numbers on the further side immense.

In support of the theory of deliberate deception on the part of false communicators, it is certainly true that, in addition to containing confused and childish statements, mediumistic material is sometimes definitely false. There have been cases in which the communicators have proved to be non-existent, or, have claimed to be dead whilst still actually living. But on the whole, the quality of mediumistic material when examined does not support the theory that it is wholly, or even mainly, the work of malevolent beings. There are so many instances in which genuine help has been obtained through this channel, and permanent good achieved by it, that the supporters of the sweeping theory of diabolism must admit that the supposed evil spirits are continually engaged in defeating their own ends.

While it is true that the bodily route of a sensitive evidently means an open door, and that there is always the danger that this door may not be efficiently guarded, yet it is also true that the best types of sensitive are extremely alive to this danger. All one can say is that they find that in practice their efforts to keep their work up to the highest possible standard do seem to result in the guarding being sufficient. The exclusion of all but the highest types of communication seems to depend in some way upon a continuance of unselfish effort on their part and a devotion of themselves and their work entirely in the service of others. This is one of the way's in which moral and spiritual factors introduce themselves into mediumistic phenomena.

2. The Lower Levels of Spiritualism

It is difficult to criticize the spiritualistic movement as a whole because it exists stratified into different layers. The lowest layer indeed presents a repellent spectacle, in which groups of people meet together and sit in the dark, alternately bawling hymns and popular-songs while the table lifts or luminous hands flit about; or perhaps messages of an extremely homely and material order are thrown out hopefully for the benefit of those to whom they may apply. If spiritualism meets with ridicule and contempt in some quarters and grave condemnation in others, this is largely the fault of spiritualists themselves - not of the subject-matter which some of them are mishandling. What can they expect if they present an attitude which is devoid of reverence, of a due sense of proportion and of all sane criticism? If they slip easily along, accepting everything psychic at its face value, when the watchword of their subject should be: Discriminate - again and again and again!

3. The Upper Levels of Spiritualism

But the movement has an upper stratum as well as a lower. There are earnest workers, bent on using their powers for the good of others with whom discipline, hardship and self-sacrifice are freely undergone to raise the quality of their productions. It is significant that the communicating influences of this upper layer are wholly and unequivocally Christian. Some of the results produced in this way are on a very high level, but they tend to leave the evidential sphere of psychical research for that of spiritual instruction. Such matter must be judged by the internal quality of its evidence, so that, strictly speaking, the means by which it is produced is irrelevant. It scarcely touches the field of psychical research because it might as well have been discovered in an Egyptian papyrus as have come through a mediumistic source. But, because it offers no hold for an intellectual test, the significance of such teaching cannot therefore be ignored. Weight should be given to the consideration that if the personal life of the medium stands high in every respect and the material itself is only produced at the cost of continual effort and self-sacrifice, then its source is guaranteed as of high standing, wherever exactly it may come from. You cannot have truth and falsehood both springing from the same well, particularly when the truth is of a high kind. Even if you insist that, in the absence of proof to the contrary, the material must be taken to have had its origin in the subconsciousness of the medium, it yet remains true that this subconscious centre is capable of producing something which involves a deeper grasp of ultimate things and is provided with a higher sense of spirituality than belongs to the medium's conscious personality. There is, be it noted, a curious inconsistency in thus restricting the source of such information to the medium's own mind if you have already put down an astonishing range of phenomena to telepathy, thus throwing the medium's mind open to every outside source in order to escape from the spiritistic theory in general.

You may object that the quality of the material, however perfect at the start, has been vitiated by the accidents of the bodily route. It is true that the difficulties of the bodily route cannot be eliminated by a high quality of sensitivity. This point should be carefully remembered; but there seems to be a consistency of quality about some of the higher productions which tends to show that, to some extent, the intermediate levels of the personality are being kept under unusually good control. Nevertheless limitation remains. It looks as though in its main lines the communication gets through, but that the exposition of it is seriously cramped. It is of this cramping and limiting that the hasty reader must beware, or he will carry away the impression that there is far less depth in the substance of the material than is really the case. We must always keep it before our minds that the communication as we receive it is conditioned in its form of expression by the medium's vocabulary and by the stock of ideas that has common currency in her mind. That alone is enough to account for much being left unsaid, or poorly expressed. Even if the whole vocabulary of the language were available, it is exceedingly poor in the terms needed to express the higher kinds of thought. We must not be alienated if, instead of the latter, we find terms from the spiritualistic vocabulary. These are probably the only terms available in the medium's mind. I have the greatest sympathy for those who find these terms powerfully repellent. The word "vibrations," for example, which has a perfectly definite physical meaning, is distorted by spiritualists to indicate something akin to mental and moral atmosphere. It gives rise to a confused idea in the mind that some sort of physical radiation is being spoken about. Again, the word "spirit" is used of everything outside the world of sense, as in "spirit-world," "spirit-body," etc., and spirit is a word which has acquired the most unfortunate associations, both on account of the unedifying history of spiritualism, and also on account of the unnatural ideas about an after-life with which religious orthodoxy has coupled it. "Spirit" conveys to most people's minds the idea of something wispy and unreal. Communicators through spiritualistic mediums are also apt to adopt unnecessarily fanciful pseudonyms, which in themselves may be harmless enough, but which have the effect of conveying an inevitable suggestion of charlatanism.

We must remember, however, that in most cases messages must either come through clothed in these terms or not at all. It is for us to look out for thoughts which may lie on a level above that of the words. Such thoughts must be detached from their verbal forms and rolled over in our minds before being dismissed as trivial. Sometimes what is at first repellent from its style is afterwards seen to be attractive from its meaning.

One or two examples may here be given by way of illustration:

"The subconscious mind is, as it were, the cupboard where the secrets of the past are stored, and sometimes because a certain vibration quickens that which is in the so-called subconscious, something beyond the physical is released.

Therefore that which man regards as 'subconscious' indicates something which has greater consciousness than the mind of the body can hold or grasp.

What am I trying to portray? How clear it is when you understand God's laws! Children, before you entered the physical garment, you, as spirits, passed through great and varied experiences. You have had many bodies but only one 'body of flesh,' and when the earth body has done its part you will pass into another 'world' and find that you still have a body. It may be coarser, it may be finer; it may represent greater strength, or, again, it may represent a bondage difficult to break from."[1]

[1] "Zodiac," in The Greater World, July 6, 1929.

There are two ideas here baldly put, the import of which scarcely strikes one at the first reading. The first is that there is a super-consciousness as well as a subconsciousness; that is to say the conscious section of the personality divides the subconscious region below it from a super-conscious region above it. Some things are of a kind which cannot rise up into consciousness, but others are of a kind which cannot descend into it. A thing can be super-intelligible, which is what the recognition of higher grades of significance would suggest.

The second idea is that our present existence is not a single and unique experience, but only one among a number of lives. Although these may present great individual differences and be characterized by greater or less degrees of spirituality, yet they do not pivot on our present life as on one which is uniquely different from all the rest. Hence some of them are naturally antecedent to this one in time, while others follow after it. The passage from life to life does, in a sense, mean a reincarnation, for we should have bodies in all lives, although no two are lived in the same world. This teaching, however startling it may at first sight appear, fits in completely with the theory of aspects given above. It is also in thorough accord with the teaching of Christ, whose single comprehensive description of God's universe was summed up in the two words: "Many Mansions," however this teaching may have been distorted by subsequent ecclesiastical influence.

Take again the simple sentences: "How much are you willing to suffer for the release of the God within?" and "Go to those in pain, saying: 'That which you suffer now in time to come shall represent a power which no one can take from you'."[2] Trenchant thoughts, these, which cut at the very root of our hedonistic civilization.

[2] "Zodiac," in The Greater World, August 10, 1929.

4. Spiritualism as a Religious Cult

Why have spiritualists turned into a religious cult a subject that might be more naturally regarded as a branch of scientific research? The reason is not far to seek. When people of no great culture or spiritual insight lose a close relative or a friend, and look in their first distress for comfort and sympathy to those around them, they are often met with insufficient imagination and understanding. Faced with what is, perhaps, their first close contact with tragedy, they turn to that branch of religious institutionalism in which they have been brought up, and which has supplied them with the usual half or quarter-belief in human survival of death. But the time is one of unusual sensitiveness. The words of the clergyman or priest, which at ordinary times have passed muster, lack the ring of conviction now that they are listening to them with genuine earnestness. They want answers to definite questions. Where is my loved one? Is he (or she) happy? Can I get into any sort of touch with him? And, perhaps, most urgently of all, Can I do anything for him? Do my present thoughts and actions affect him? No satisfactory answers are forthcoming. The Churches have conventionalized the facts of religion until they have succeeded in divorcing them from reality. People in bereavement are not going to be fobbed off with texts or platitudes. They turn from these to seek out the society of others in the same plight as themselves and talk their difficulties over with them. They soon discover that spiritualism has something tangible to offer. Their loved one, it affirms, is still alive in circumstances at least recognizably like those of this present world. He is not engaged in singing unending Hallelujahs (which must come as a relief to the minds of the mourners), but is living a life at least approximating to what ordinary people would call normal. He has a body, and is living amongst tangible surroundings of a kind at least comparable with those which he has left behind. How can these things be? Quite well when you realize what this body is, and this physical world. Further, and this is the great point, proof is offered of these things, for at s้ances they are told that it is possible to get into communication with him. What more natural than to attend s้ance; to meet regularly; to bring hymn-books and to carry on the old tradition of a service on Sundays, all based on what are now to them their central religious facts? The clergy may denounce, and the learned may smile, but messages bearing at least some appearance of being veridical will with very many outweigh the indefinite teachings of orthodoxy.

Spiritualism since the war has shown a great increase, and this, besides being due to the war, may owe something to a general improvement in the quality of mediumistic material. The number of those who now give a mental assent to it is not confined to avowed spiritualists alone. It includes also many unavowed converts, some of whom are to be found in the most unexpected places. Owing to the basis upon which it rests, the movement has become a religion which centres upon, if it is not identified with, the facts of death and its immediate survival. It is not much good to tell such people, what is the truth, that real religion cannot be based upon external and finite facts. The confusion between psychic facts and spiritual values is with them complete.

Spiritualism is not properly a religion because its subject-matter is concerned with a field of phenomena which ought to be included within the boundaries of scientific research. It deals with finite and temporal facts, and the whole subject of human survival of death under finite conditions has nothing necessarily to do with religion. Many of my readers will disagree with this statement. I ask them to bear it in mind nevertheless and to compare it with their own religious experience. We must never forget this fundamental fact, that survival of death is a corollary of immortality, but immortality is not a corollary of survival of death. Psychical phenomena in the abstract are devoid of religious values, but spiritualists have turned them into a religion because when plain men and women come into contact with them, it is usually in connection with some personal bereavement, and actual human lives and human deaths are intimately bound up with religion. Thus it is that the two become confused in practice. The spiritualist's mode of thought is also in part the product of a long tradition of religious teaching which has always tended to place the religious element of a future life in the externals of another world. That dualistic habit of thought which speaks of this world of sense as "natural," and of whatever may lie outside it as "supernatural," has so soaked into people's minds that it is taken for granted that something religious must be met with directly we step across the boundary of the world of sense.

It is on account of this close association between scientific facts and powerful human emotions, and the religious values of actual life, that the whole field of psychic enquiry is so difficult to approach in the right spirit. The keenest discrimination and the most exact poise and judgment are essential in it. We have to deal with finite facts of evidence which are subtly blended and need the most careful disentangling. The ground broken is new to science and the strictest evidential conditions are not only legitimate, but absolutely essential. At the same time, psychical research has something to learn from the spiritualists. It is they who have recognized the very special treatment that must be accorded to the sensitive. The method of procedure used in psychical enquiry is bound to differ markedly from that used in other branches of science because the instrument used is a human being; and not only a human being, but a human being in a very peculiar condition. That sensitiveness to mental atmosphere which ordinary people of a highly strung type experience, is with sensitives very greatly intensified, especially in connection with the trance state. The sensitive is in a state comparable to spiritual nakedness, as sensitive to the spiritual atmosphere as a person with no clothes on is to the wind. The experimenter who wishes to make progress in his subject must possess sufficient imagination to recognize this as a tangible fact and to allow for it. It may even be necessary to exclude a person from the sittings whose mental attitude or emotional characteristics include a factor of hostility, prejudiced scepticism, contempt, or a general lack of sympathy or spirituality. This may be a difficult and invidious thing to do, but it is useless to ignore it. To do so is to shut one's eyes deliberately to the necessary conditions. If we do that we are like physicists trying to make experiments with the pendulum on board ship. High qualities and motives both in sitters and sensitive are conditions as essential as intelligence in psychical research. Given these qualities, a spirit of mutual co-operation will ensue, and there is not likely to be much difficulty in applying the necessary evidential conditions. They will be mutually agreed upon. To attempt to apply the conditions without first establishing the right atmosphere results, as the history of the subject shows, in a long drawn-out inconclusiveness.

Thus we are led to the conclusion that, although the field of psychical enquiry is one which properly belongs to science, yet values and qualities of the human character are so inextricably bound up with it as to raise it above the exclusively intellectual level on to a higher grade of significance. There is need for a more comprehensive effort. It is more than doubtful whether the purely logical method of science can alone pierce the boundary of the world of sense. If we want more light on our world and its problems we must rise to a view of it on a higher significant grade than that of customary scientific research. It will be necessary to bend the whole of our analytical capacity on to the problem of unravelling the communications obtained through the best sensitives, but we must frankly recognize at the same time that intellectual efforts must be combined with the highest efforts of the whole personality.

5. Survival and Immortality

Although it is not the purpose of this book to deal with religion, the subject cannot be altogether avoided. At this point we are inevitably brought into contact with it in connection with the relation between survival of death and immortality. The distinction between the two needs no elucidation for the mystic. For him immortality is a living fact although he may never have thought out the problem of survival of death. But the distinction is one which has never been clearly presented by institutional religion. Put briefly, the knowledge of immortality is borne in upon the human subject of experience as part and parcel of his realization of the eternal values of truth, beauty and goodness, and of his own essential oneness with them in the higher reaches of his being; also of his sense of communion with the Divine, all of which experiences are of a non-temporal character, and are therefore unaffected by the beginning and end of life in this world. Existence, as he knows it in the highest region of his being, has nothing to do with the temporal flux of finite things, and cannot be subject to it. He is aware of immortality, not as a life that will be more than as a life that is, for "is" and "will be" in this region do not admit of the clear-cut distinction imparted to them by the world of sense.

Immortality belongs to the sphere of religion. Survival of death, on the other hand, belongs to a different category of things altogether. It refers to that aspect of the human personality which is drawn down into the finite and lives amid the passing flux of events in the space-time of what we call the physical world. Will that finite personality - that limited abstraction from the larger self - continue to live a life recognizably akin to its present one? That is the problem with which psychical research and spiritualism are concerned.

Unless we are careful to maintain the distinction between the life of facts and the life of values very clearly in our minds, we are likely to become involved in dire confusion, and we have seen that this vital distinction is one which the spiritualists, as a rule, do not take the trouble to draw. It is not surprising therefore that we should find the spiritualistic outlook energetically challenged by an author who writes with a deep sense of the essentially mystical nature of true religion. In his enthusiasm for religious mysticism, this author includes psychical research along with spiritualism in his condemnation, regarding the two as attempting to set up a superstitious substitute in the place of eternal life.

"Psychical research is trying to prove that the eternal values are temporal facts which they can never be."[3]

[3] W. R. Inge, Outspoken Essays, Vol. I, p. 268.

To the mystic the suggestion that psychical enquiry is dragging down the high values of religion is one which immediately calls forth sympathetic attention. If this accusation is true it is by far the most serious which either psychical research or spiritualism has to face. Dr. Inge continues:

"And so, instead of the blessed hope of everlasting life, the bereaved have been driven to this pathetic and miserable substitute, the barbaric belief in ghosts and demons, which was old before Christianity was young. And what a starveling hope it is that necromancy offers us! An existence as poor and unsubstantial as that of Homer's Hades, which the shade of Achilles would have been glad to exchange for serfdom to the poorest farmer, and with no guarantee of permanence, even if the power of comforting or terrifying surviving relatives is supposed to persist, for a few years."[4]

[4] Op. cit., p. 268.

It is indeed true that if one regards the performance of a mediocre spiritualistic sitting as giving a picture of what a future life is like, one can scarcely do other than sympathize with the view which says: If I am really destined to come back after I am dead and utter banalities of this sort, or give a kind of variety entertainment in the dark, then spiritualism has merely added another terror to death.

The unsatisfactory character of what either spiritualism or psychical research has to offer when looked at from the real religious standpoint receives further emphasis from an unexpected quarter. Thus the editor of the spiritualist paper Light writes:

"All that is logically proved whether by psychic science or psychic philosophy is human survival of physical death, the perpetuation of personality, the continuation of consciousness beyond physical dissolution... The utmost that the intellectual process can achieve in the matter is the recognition that something of man survives death in a kind of mechanical or galvanic fashion. The sanctities, the splendours, the poetry and the vision of life are beyond its ambit."[5]

[5] David Gow, Survival, p. 141.

There, then, is the contrast. Real religion, that is to say the innate religious experience of mysticism, is an utterly different thing from the whole outlook to which psychical enquiry tends:

"He who has tasted eternal life is not wont to be troubled in heart about the questioning of his personal survival; for such survival would mean nothing to him, if he were separated from the object in which he has found his true life. His immortality lies for him in his union with the eternal object on which his affections are set, and he seeks no other assurance."[6]

[6] W. R. Inge, Philosophy of Plotinus, p. 147.

On the grade of significance on which religion lies, the things which are perceived contain their own proof. The proof is part of the awareness of the perception.

But we do not feel that we are faced with the dilemma of choosing between religion and psychical research, because we recognize clearly the distinction between immortality and survival of death. In our present world it is perfectly possible for the religious mystic to live his life in the world of values concurrently with his daily life in the world of external facts. His religion in this world consists, not in what is outward, but in what is inward. So we believe it will be in another world. There will be an outward life of finite facts - the life of survival - and there will be an inward life of religious values, involving an inexpressible union; a drawing ever closer and closer to God - the life of immortality. The outer life may be less rigid and exacting, giving the inner far more scope than at present, but the two will go on side by side. In the end the finite life may sink into insignificance in comparison with the other, but we can scarcely expect to attain such heights in a single step.

But the consciousness of the timeless and eternal things remains, and we know that it is in them that the essence of our being lies, so that the discussions of science and the conflict of thought and the dogmatisms of formal religions, whatever their value, flow past these things, leaving them untouched. In such lies the only true ground and assurance of human immortality. Because we can rise to a knowledge of truth, beauty and love, and can live in them and they in us; because we can, here and now, identify ourselves with the eternal values, and with Christ, the incarnate revelation of these values and of God, and know from experience the community of our natures with His, we know that, "because He lives we shall live also." This is the key-position of mysticism, and it is at the opposite pole from the point of view which attempts to base either religion or immortality on psychical phenomena or indeed on external facts of any kind.

Source: "Grades of Significance" by G. N. M. Tyrrell (London: Rider & Co., 1931).


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
• Psychical Research and Religion
• Is there Anything Besides Fraud in the Physical S้ance 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

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