TheCrockery

A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

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Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Return of the Inevitable Ghost Entry

I had promised to return to the subject of the nature of ghosts. This is a weighty question. There are several possible explanations for hauntings and ghost sightings. I'll list a few just to make it clear that I'm trying not to ignore any possibilities:

First, there are the . . .


Natural explanations

1) Ghost sightings and apparitions are psychological events of some nature. Individuals don't actually encounter ghosts; rather, their brains play tricks on them. This need not mean that the people who see ghosts are "crazy," as stress, disease, or some temporary condition may cause the event. In any event, in this explanation, ghosts are "more gravy than grave," as Ebeneezer Scrooge put it.

2) Haunting events may be caused by "natural causes," such as electricity (St. Elmo's Fire), houses shifting, or magnetic phenomena. Some of these may be phenomena which sciencists do not yet fully understand, which explains why some hauntings seem inexplicable.

3) Hauntings aren't mysterious phenomena at all. Rather, what happens is that a series of unconnected events becomes connected by a central haunting narrative. In other words, once you have a ghost story, anything becomes a sign of the ghost. Objects appear to be moved, pictures fall off the walls, and people see things out of the corner of their eyes. In reality, each one of these events has a perfectly natural and normal explanation, but they become bound together in a central overarching narrative. If the house creaks in the night, it's a ghost. If you wake up a dream feeling as if someone were watching you, it's a ghost. If you absent mindedly put your keys in the wrong place, a ghost must have moved them.

Though I boldly admit that I have not done any statistical research on the subject, I personally suspect that most "hauntings" are of Category 3. I would guess that most "ghosts" are just stories which take on an explanatory power. Every new unusual event simply adds to the story, so ghost stories, once started rolling, have the potential to snowball. And, of course, such stories might be started by a "haunting" of Category 1 or 2 type. One day, when she's working in the library, Jane Doe has a hallucination in which she sees a woman in white, and she tells everyone she knows. (Category 1 haunting.) As a result, the next time John Smith loses his notebook in the library, he blames it on the "woman in white." He tells everyone he knows, and the story goes from there- now you have a Category 3 haunting.

Still, there are plenty of people who report experiences which they claim don't fit into any of the above categories. Such people may be misunderstanding whatever events took place -they may be claiming that they saw something which was really caused by the misfiring of a synapse, as the saying goes- but for those of us who aren't materialists, there's at least the possibility that what some people experience when they encounter a haunting is really supernatural.


Spiritual/Paranormal Explanations

1) "Ghosts" are actually demons. They are not human at all, though they may look or claim to be human, and they are always evil. It might be protested that this doesn't seem to account for the way some ghosts behave. However, Christian tradition says that demons are highly deceptive. They might very well choose to act in ways which wouldn't seem demonic. 1 John 4:1-3 gives directions for "testing the spirits" to determine which are from God, but this doesn't seem to be designed to deal with ghosts. Demonologists suggest various ways of determining whether a given spirit is a demon, but of course, this may still assume that there are spirits which aren't demons.

2) Ghosts are neither humans nor demons but something else entirely. In this case they might not always be evil. They might just be "spirits" of some sort which aren't recognized by Christian cosmologies. This category seems to me to be the least helpful to those trying to understand ghosts from a Christian perspective, so that's all I'll say about it.

3) Ghosts are the souls of the dead which, for some reason or another, are roaming earth. In other words, Joe Bob, rather than being in Heaven or Hell, is for some reason haunting his old bungalow. Theologically, this may seem problematic. It seems to contradict the statement that "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" (Hebrews 9:27), which says nothing about people lingering around on earth to scare other people. Given the Christian belief in a judgment followed by punishment, or reward (with a time of refinement coming before the reward in some views, of course) it might seem that there's no room for ghosts. But a surprising number of Catholic writers have actually given some thought to this issue, and in Part III of this series, I'll look at some of the different explanations suggested for why human spirits might be wandering the earth.

4) Ghost are not actually souls, but are some other kind of spiritual/psychic remnant left after people die. In other words, ghosts aren't people, but they are caused by people. Joe Bob may actually be in Heaven, but he somehow left an imprint of himself on the world, and under certain conditions, people may actually encounter this imprint.

The category I'm most interested in here is # 4. I don't believe I've encountered any Christian endorsements of this view of ghosts, but it makes sense to me. Since we believe in a supernatural as well as a natural world, why shouldn't we believe that people might sometimes leave supernatural "impressions" on the physical world? This would explain why people who have suffered strongly, especially victims of accidents and murders, often become ghosts. Their strong emotions have left a strong imprint on the world.

Arguably, Category 4 ghosts should make good sense to Catholics, since Catholicism has a sacramental view of the world. We believe that relics may serve as symbols of the piety of the saints with which they're connected. They are such strong symbols that God may choose to work miracles through relics, as He did in the case of third-class relics connected to the apostle Paul (See Acts 19:11-12). One might ask: if objects connected to a holy person can so strongly symbolize holiness that miracles occur around them, why should we assume that this kind of connection is limited to holiness? What if phsyical objects could be strongly connected with human emotions, with repetitive actions, or with crises? In this case, "miracles" of another sort might occur around objects or places associated with strong emotional/spiritual reactions, whether for good or for bad.

All of this may sound flaky at best and heretical at worst, I know. It's not an idea I'm committed to. In fact, I'm not really committed to the idea that ghosts are anything but natural phenomena misinterpreted- but I like to speculate. Speculation is fun. I like to speculare that some hauntings may not be "natural." And I like to speculate that at least some of those hauntings are caused by neither demons nor human spirits, but "imprints" or "traces" which are somehow left behind after death. If this is the case, it makes a difference in how a haunting is approached, because these "ghosts" don't need to be exorcised out of a building or to be helped to find resolution. They don't need anything because "they" -the human spirits ultimately behind the hauntings- aren't really there anymore. There's no personality to threaten or cajole. All we are seeing is a supernatural shadow.

Perhaps, finally, that's why I like the idea of ghosts being caused by supernatural shadows: such ghosts can't hurt us, and don't need our help, so we don't need to worry about them. They're just there as a testimony to someone's life, whether joyful or painful. Their only impact on us to make the substance of creepy stories. And don't we all need a good ghost story now and then?

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