Monday, July 31, 2017

Let Us Imagine

Several years ago, I was asked by a friend in the United States to explain what I thought the word “paranormal” meant. I knew he held the opinion that the term only meant things such as UFOs, or ghosts, and I was also aware that he thought it was all a bit silly; indeed, he had given me friendly grief about my interest in the subject from time to time. But I also knew that he went to church on a fairly regular basis, and that he was a liberal Democrat who had voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

In answer to his question, I referred him to a 2008 Newsweek interview with Obama wherein the future President discussed his religious beliefs. Obama stated that he prays for "forgiveness for my sins and flaws, which are many, the protection of my family, and that I'm carrying out God's will, not in a grandiose way, but simply that there is an alignment between my actions and what He would want."[2]

I then sent my friend a copy of an interview Obama gave to Christianity Today in 2008, wherein he stated unequivocally, “I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life.”[3]

“So,” I asked my friend the next time I saw him, after the election, “let me get this straight. You just voted – in an election for the most powerful office in the world – for a man who believes in a supernatural being, with whom he communicates via telepathy. This supernatural being also sent his only son to Earth to be tortured and executed, and then brought him back from the dead a couple of days later, all so that a prophecy could be fulfilled. And of course there’s the whole “walking on water” thing, not to mention the “water into wine’ trick, and the raising of the dead, and…”

I paused for effect, and then, as my friend began to frown, I delivered the punch-line.

 “And you think I’m a bit goofy for having an interest in UFOs and ghosts?”

I think he finally got my point.

At a lecture about the paranormal that I gave at the 2011 Hal-Con science fiction and fantasy convention in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I began by showing photos of some of my favorite paranormalists, just to drive home the same point.[4] The first was Søren Kierkegaard, one of the great Western philosophers, whose work was devoted primarily to examining the relationship between man and God (who has to be considered the ultimate in allegedly paranormal beings). I followed Kierkegaard with Abraham Lincoln, a deeply spiritual man who claimed to have had a dream about his own assassination just three days before it happened.[5]  After Lincoln, I went with William Lyon MacKenzie King, the longest-serving Prime Minister in Canadian history and the primary architect of our modern social welfare state. King regularly consulted mediums and spiritualists to try and contact, among others, his mother, Leonardo Da Vinci, and one of his predecessors, Sir Wilfrid Laurier.[6] Albert Einstein got a mention, if for no other reason than his oft-quoted maxim that “God does not play dice with the universe.”[7] Finally, I added Obama, and the quotes noted above.

The difficulty in coming up with this little exercise wasn’t trying to find serious people who took an interest in the paranormal; it was trying to whittle the list down to just a few.

The paranormal is the ultimate Rorschach test. In many respects, how we view things like UFOs, or ghosts, or the possibility of an afterlife, tells us more about ourselves than it does about the subjects themselves. The paranormal is about far more than the caricature of the crazy cultists drinking the poisoned Kool-Aid so that they can beam up to the mothership, just as religion and spirituality are about far more than suicide bombers flying hijacked planes into the World Trade Center or murderers shooting doctors who provide abortions. These are things at the very fringe of what is most definitely not a fringe subject.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have drawn parallels between the concept of “God” and things such as UFOs and ghosts; the real surprise is that more people have not. It’s all paranormal, and it has been a defining feature of the human journey from the very beginning, deeply embedded in our philosophy and our religion, our stories, songs and our poems, and yes, even in our science. It’s worth remembering that Sir Isaac Newton, the man considered by many to be the greatest scientist who ever lived, actually wrote more about religion and the supernatural than he did about science, without ever seeing a contradiction between the two. That doesn’t mean he was right, of course, but it does illustrate that the “paranormal” isn’t as outlandish as some people would have you believe.[8]

Henry Alline, Canada's first great evangelist and a Christian of a mystical bent, had a profound spiritual experience in the late 18th century that changed his life and set him on his short career as the leader of the first Great Awakening in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.[9] Here is how Alline described what happened to him as he walked through the woods of colonial Nova Scotia in 1775. It was about as intense and transforming an experience as one can possibly imagine, and as such it’s worth considering within the context of the term “paranormal”:
O the infinite condescension of God to a worm of the dust! for though my whole soul was filled with love, and ravished with a divine ecstacy beyond any doubts or fears, or thoughts of being then deceived, for I enjoyed a heaven on earth, and it seemed as if I were wrapped up in God, and that he had done ten thousand times more for me than ever I could expect, or had ever thought of: yet he still stooped to the weakness of my desires and requests, made as before observed on the 13th of February; though I had no thoughts of it then, until it was given me. Looking up, I thought I saw that same light, though it appeared different, and as soon as I saw it, the design was opened to me, according to his promise, and I was obliged to cry out: enough, enough, O blessed God; the work of conversion, the change and the manifestations of it are no more disputable, than that light which I see, or anything that I ever saw."[10]
He continued:
I will not say I saw either of those lights with my bodily eyes, though I thought then I did, but it is no odds to me, for it was as evident to me, as anything I ever saw with my bodily eyes (-in my Life); and answered the end it was sent for.[11]
The phrase "though I thought then I did" should give one pause for thought. Did Alline actually see a light, and perhaps come in contact with an advanced non-human intelligence, which he perceived as “God” because he filtered the contact through the cultural morays of his time? While he was clearly speaking in traditional Christian metaphor, using symbols that were common and well understood in his time, it’s important to understand that the experience itself was very real, at least to Alline.[12] This was not some dry recounting of an intellectual process whereby he had come up with a seemingly rational reason for believing in God. If you had put it to him that he had “made contact” with some non-human intelligence, he would have certainly agreed.[13]

Alline was so inspired by this experience that he embarked upon an evangelical mission to spread his “New Light” gospel even as he was wracked by tuberculosis. The eight-year revival he led transformed the religious and social life of the Maritime colonies and eventually spread to New England, before he passed away in 1784 at the age of 36.

Did his conversion experience provide irrefutable evidence of the existence of God, or some other form of advanced non-human intelligence, whatever it might be?

Of course not. But that’s the wrong question to ask.

Henry Alline was but a single ripple in the “ocean” of human experience, just as people who study UFO or ghost phenomena, or experiment with altered states of consciousness, are ripples on that ocean. They’re all out there, on the water, looking for new horizons. By doing so, they are often considered outcasts. Alline, for example, was called the “ravager of churches” by many mainstream clergy in Nova Scotia once he commenced his Great Awakening, because he didn’t play by their rules.[14] He was a revolutionary who embraced new experiences, ideas, and ways of thinking.

Whereas many people talk about the ocean, however, very few actually go sailing. Indeed, most do their very best to stay away from the water altogether, because they’ve been told that it’s dangerous. They have their regimented, ordered view of the world, and in that world it’s better to stay on terra firma, a place where unimaginative conformity is the perpetual “normal.” They “live” in the strictest, biological sense of the word, but they aren’t actually living.

An interest in the paranormal is nothing to be embarrassed by. For people who understand that the journey is the destination, and who are willing to embrace the revolution of thought that fuels the trip, the paranormal, in all of its weird and wonderfully imaginative aspects and possibilities, is an essential part of a healthy and fully balanced life, deeply related to an understanding of the human condition. That doesn't mean that UFOs are aliens from Zeta Reticuli, or that ghosts are the spirits of your dearly departed grandmother (although those things could be true). Rather, it is a prism through which we can stimulate our imagination, and potentially reach a better understanding of ourselves. 

I discussed all of this with the late Karl Pflock in 2001 when I interviewed him for the documentary Stanton T. Friedman is Real. I asked him about what he called “the will to believe” as it related to UFOs, but his response applied to all aspects of the paranormal.

“What I mean by it is the desire for something to be true affecting one’s judgment and assessment of the facts before you,” he answered. “The poster on the wall in Fox Mulder’s office that says ‘I Want to Believe’ is a representation of what happens to be a very real thing in UFO research. People want very much to believe whatever it is that happens to be their interest – alien visitation, abductions, et cetera. Unfortunately what happens is this leads them to ignore facts which are contrary to the things that they want to believe.”[15]

Karl then made clear that this closed mindset did not just affect the true believers. “You have the mirror-image on the so-called skeptic side,” he told me. “The CSICOP-ians, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. They start from the premise that ‘they can’t be, therefore they aren’t.’[16] The true believers start from ‘they must be, therefore they are.’ So, those of us who are slogging through all this, and trying to follow the facts wherever they lead, are caught between these two extremes, and unfortunately are often defined by them.”

For those of us in what my good friend Greg Bishop has called “the excluded middle,” the way forward is to ignore the high priests of belief and / or disbelief who claim to have all the answers, and focus on the mystery that draws people to the subject in the first place. It's my opinion, expressed in my book The Other Side of Truth as well as on myriad radio shows, that this isn’t really a scientific endeavor with definitive answers so much as it is an artistic one, meant to fire the imagination with myriad interpretations, varied impressions, and the widest range of possible meanings.

It is a deeply idiosyncratic and personal search for truth, whatever that may be. It relies as much upon our ability to imagine as it does anything else. But as Albert Einstein said, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination,”[17] and who am I to argue with Einstein?

So let us imagine!

[1] Dennis Edmonton, aka Mars Bonfire, “Born to Be Wild,” Perf. by Steppenwolf, Steppenwolf (ABC Dunhill Records, 1968).
[2] Lisa Miller and Richard Wolffe, “Finding My Faith,” Newsweek, 21 July 2008.
[3] Sarah Pulliam and Ted Olsen, “Q&A: Barack Obama,” Christianity Today, 23 January 2008.
[4] Suzy Riddler, “Paranormal Investigations with Paul Kimball at Hal-Con 2011,” Hexed: Sisterhood of the Supernatural, 19 November 2011.
[5] Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847 – 1865, ed. Dorothy Lamon Teillard (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999),  113 - 117.
[6] Allan Levine, William Lyon MacKenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre), 250 – 259. King was friends with the famous medium Etta Wriedt (1860 – 1942), whom he met in 1932, and who visited him a number of times when he was Prime Minister. See “Henrietta ‘Etta’ Wriedt,” Library and Archives Canada.
[7] Albert Einstein, “Letter to Max Born, 4 December 1926,” in The Born-Einstein Letters, translated by Irene Born (New York: Walker and Company, 1971).
[8] Many of Newton’s religious works can be found side by side with his scientific writings at The Newton Project.
[9] George A. Rawlyk, Ravished by the Spirit: Religious Revivals, Baptists and Henry Alline (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1984).
[10] Henry Alline, The Life and Journal of the Rev. Mr. Henry Alline (Boston: Gilbert & Dean, 1806), 35 – 36.
[11] Ibid., 36.
[12] Alline was familiar with the works of the great Christian mystics Jacob Böhme and William Law, and his own experience contains a number of similarities with theirs. For a full discussion of the “conversion” experience, see William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901 – 1902 (New York: The Modern Library, 2002), 210 – 285.
[13] See also The New Light Experience of Henry Alline, directed by Evangelo Kioussis (Halifax: Redstar Films, 2000). Television.
[14] D. G. Bell, Henry Alline and Maritime Religion (Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association, 1993), 11.
[15] Stanton T. Friedman is Real, directed by Paul Kimball (Halifax: Redstar Films Limited, 2002). Television. Pflock died in 2006 of ALS after an interesting career. He was a former Marine, served in the CIA as an intelligence officer, worked as a political consultant, congressional staffer and lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and served in the Reagan administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Deputy Director) for Operational Test and Evaluation.
[16] CSICOP changed their name to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) in 2006. See The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, While they claim that their mission is “to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims,” their way of thinking is for the most part not true skepticism, but rather the kind of disbelief that Karl talked about.
[17] George S. Viereck, “What Life Means to Einstein,” The Saturday Evening Post, 26 October 1929, 117.

Haunted: Holly Stevens at the Yarmouth jail

My good friend and co-host Holly Stevens investigating the old jail in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, in this teaser clip from the TV series Haunted (premiering in Canada in October on Eastlink TV).

This was just the beginning of what was a night of almost non-stop weirdness, which made the old Yarmouth jail one of the most interesting - and scariest - locations we have ever investigated.

Paul Kimball

Monday, July 24, 2017

Political Paul

A happy-go-lucky progressive on the campaign trail in Clayton Park West.

What was I doing while I was "away" from blogging? Well, running for office in the recent Nova Scotia provincial election, for one thing (for my American chums, that's the equivalent of running for your state legislatures).

Did I win? Nope. Did I do better than anyone expected? Yes. I increased my party's share of the vote from 15% in the last election and a third place finish to 26% in this election and the first second place finish in my riding in 15 years. In other words, I left it in better shape for the next person who runs.

Did my interest in the paranormal hurt me? 

Not at all. 

Indeed, while I didn't make a point of mentioning my hobby, when it did come up it was usually because someone had seen one of my films, or my ghost investigating TV shows, and wanted to talk to me about it. Never once did I get a negative comment from a voter (there was a high school student who posted something negative about it on twitter, but that just got him a good dose of opprobrium from constituents who noticed) - in fact, more than a few people told me they thought it was "really cool" (including some fellow candidates). 

In the end, however, it just wasn't a factor. Folks understood that it had no bearing on whether or not I would make a good representative. My views on health care, or the economy, or education, mattered to them  (and given that I was running for a party, my party's views mattered even more) - not my personal interest in the paranormal and its subculture. There is no "laughter curtain" for rational people who have an interest in the subject.  

The results in my riding of Clayton Park West. The last PC candidate finished 3rd with
1,236 votes and 14.68% of the vote in 2013, so I moved my party forward.

I'm back to ghost hunting on TV (and employing some Nova Scotians along the way), but if I ever decide to run again, I have no worries at all that the "paranormal thing" will matter to my fellow Nova Scotians in anything other than a positive way. I even had some fun with it during the recent campaign, in what turned out to be my most popular ad not featuring a talking hamster.

Running was one of the best experiences of my life. I wanted to make a difference, and I think I did. I got to talk about issues - poverty, health care, the film industry, good governance (see the video below) - that matter to me, and more importantly I got to meet my fellow citizens and hear what matters to them. I'm still involved in politics and my community here, and will continue to be involved as long as I have something to contribute.

Intelligent and sensible folks appreciate someone who takes the issues seriously (as I do), but also has the ability to poke some fun at himself - which is exactly how I roll.

Paul Kimball