Intellectual respectability and paranormal channeling

My first (indirect) experience with channeling was way back in college. A skeptical roommate of mine had been dragged along to see a local channeler by a friend of hers who’d embraced the new age and alternative healing movement of the mid 80s. For several months afterward, my roommate would regale the rest of us with a comical but eerie imitation of what she’d seen, including the channeler’s quavery voice, pained expression, and bobbing head. For some time, this performance was a party favorite, and I don’t think it ever occurred to any of us that the channeler had done anything more legitimate than a parlor trick.

In the decades that followed, I went on to read a fair bit of supposedly channeled material, including two of the Seth books and sizable chunks of A Course in Miracles. Because I’ve long been a professional academic, being taken “seriously” has always felt like an especially important job requirement, and so I’ve never been inclined to advertise my interest in such books. I can acknowledge it now largely because I’ve become suspicious of the fact that one of the most defining characteristics of “respectable university professor” is one’s blunt refusal to countenance squishy, irrational, woo-woo claims. Authors who claim to be channels, it seems to me now, may actually serve as a kind of foil against which serious intellectualism is erected and maintained. I am here to confess that I have not only entertained some of these writings but have discovered passages in them that have struck me as surprising, resonant, and evocative.

I felt empowered to turn my attention to such supposed nonsense not because I had suddenly started believing in ghosts, angels, and spirit guides — I have spent relatively little time pondering such metaphysically ignominious possibilities — but because, over time, I came to be less invested in intellectual respectability. I became willing to read the works of women claiming to channel the advice of timeless discarnate personalities, and also developed an openness to a whole range of spiritually-inclined popular authors. It wasn’t that age had gradually made me more gullible and desperate, but that, partly thanks to the philosopher William James, my relationship to philosophical beliefs itself had begun to shift.

Basically, over the decades, I have come to see myself less as a judge who’s been assigned to assess the validity of others’ ideas, and, instead, become more attuned to whether or not these ideas are creative, interesting, and coherent, and with how they seem to impact peoples’ lives and the world. I have become a much more pluralistic and ecumenical reader and thinker — some might say promiscuous — to the degree that my ego investment in being a “respectable intellectual” has eroded.

I am not, to be clear, endorsing irrationality, or challenging the ascendency of basic empirical principles in everyday affairs. Great damage is done by those who play fast and loose with common sense standards of epistemic justification. As the yard sign affirms, “I believe in science,” and, in general, I also think we have an obligation to be led by the facts and propelled by good reasoning. In addition, my generally skeptical nature has remained intact, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. For instance, I am no more likely to believe in the existence of Atlantis — an assertion made in some of the supposedly channeled material — than that Noah floated around in a ship filled with lions, elephants, chihuahuas and hamsters.

The difference now is that my skepticism is no longer quite so firmly attached to my ego identity. As a result I feel much less compelled to evaluate and sort philosophical beliefs into the categories of respectable and silly, and certainly not on the basis of authorship. If a metaphysical or spiritual passage or principle emerges that seems relevant and resonant, then I don’t care as much whether it was written by Kant, Moses, or a facet of the personality of a supposedly reincarnated master as rendered by a Poughkeepsie housewife. Ultimately, then, although I have not embraced so-called irrational, paranormal spiritualism, nor am I any longer such an academic fundamentalist that I will refuse to entertain ideas emerging from such sources on the mere grounds that their provenance sounds a little goofy.

The really weird thing — please stay with me here — is that there are times when I am writing that I feel like I might be functioning as a sort of channel myself. In fact, on some early mornings, as I sit tap-tapping away, a warm tuxedo cat stretched out along my lap, it can feel like the “I” who is writing has become plugged into a well of consciousness much deeper than my normal conceptual thinking. For me, intellectualism that prioritizes cleverness and correctness has turned out to be a path to chronic dissatisfaction. So, on those occasions when I seem able to dip my small cup into previously unaccessible pools of understanding, doesn’t it kind of make sense for me to believe that the source of my words is no longer me?

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