I want to start out this morning by sharing a real-life X-File with you. Do you get that image, “X-File”? Comes from a hit television show of the same name, which aired in the 1990s and up till 2002.
In the show, X-Files are unsolved cases involving paranormal phenomena, collected by the FBI but no one really takes them seriously except for this one agent, nicknamed “Spooky,” who’s passionately curious about them and happily willing to risk his reputation to get to the truth. I’m talking Fox Mulder. First time we meet him, he’s in his office, in the very bowels of the FBI building, the basement, can’t get any lower than that in the bureaucratic food chain. A clear message from his FBI bosses about what they think about the whole business.
“X-Files,” in short, is an image loaded with powerful themes: mystery, passionate curiosity, risk, denial and disdain. X-File means all that together. Something that goes bump in the night of our normal, tidy sense of life.
So now, a real X-File. And since this is real life, it comes not from an FBI file but from a book by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Ph. D., entitled Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind. It’s her personal X-File, which changed her life.
She writes, “In 1991 I was teaching in the psychology department of the University of California at Berkeley and at the University Medical Center in San Francisco. I was doing research on female development and seeing patients in my psychoanalysis practice. I was a member of numerous professional associations, doing committee work, attending international meetings, functioning on editorial boards, and lecturing all over the country. I was a training and supervising analyst in the American Psychoanalytic Association. I was busy and fulfilled, and life was running along the way it does.
“My eleven-year-old daughter, Meg, who’d fallen in love with the harp at age six, had begun performing. She wasn’t playing a classical pedal harp but a smaller, extremely valuable instrument built and carved by a master harp maker. After a Christmas concert, her harp was stolen from the theater where she was playing. For two months we went through every conceivable channel trying to locate it: the police, instrument dealers across the country, the American Harp Society newsletters–even a CBS TV news story. Nothing worked.
“Finally, a wise and devoted friend told me, “If you really want that harp back, you should be willing to try anything. Try calling a dowser.” The only thing I knew about dowsers were that they were that strange breed who locate underground water with forked sticks. But according to my friend, the “really good” dowsers can locate not just water but lost objects as well.
“Finding lost objects with forked sticks? Well, nothing was happening on the police front, and my daughter, spoiled by several years of playing an extraordinary instrument, had found the series of commercial harps we’d rented simply unplayable. So, half-embarrassed but desperate, I decided to take my friend’s dare. I asked her if she could locate a really good dowser–the best, I said. She promptly called the American Society of Dowsers and came back with the phone number of the society’s current president: Harold McCoy, in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
“I called him that day. Harold picked up the phone–friendly, cheerful, heavy Arkansas accent. I told him I’d heard he could dowse for lost objects and that I’d had a valuable harp stolen in Oakland, California. Could he help locate it?
“’Give me a second,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you if it’s still in Oakland.’ He paused, then: ‘Well, it’s still there. Send me a street map of Oakland and I’ll locate that harp for you.’ Skeptical–but what, after all, did I have to lose? I promptly overnighted him a map. Two days later, he called back. ‘Well, I got that harp located,’ he said. ‘It’s in the second house on the right on D- Street, just off L- Avenue.’
“I’d never heard of either street. But I did like the sound of the man’s voice–whoever he was. And I don’t like backing down on a dare. Why not drive to the house he’d identified? At least I’d get the address. I looked on an Oakland map and found the neighborhood. It was miles from anywhere I’d ever been. I got in my car, drove into Oakland, located the house, wrote down the number, called the police, and told them I’d gotten a tip that the harp might be at that house. Not good enough for a search warrant, they said. They were going to close the case–there was no way this unique, portable, and highly marketable item hadn’t already been sold; it was gone forever.
“But I found I couldn’t quite let it go. Was it the dare? Was it my admiration for the friend who’d instigated the whole thing? Was it my devastated daughter? Or was it just that I had genuinely liked the sound of that voice on the other end of the line?
“I decided to post flyers in a two-block area around the house, offering a reward for the harp’s return. It was a crazy idea, but why not? I put up flyers in those two blocks, and only those two blocks. I was embarrassed enough about what I was doing to tell just a couple of close friends about it.
“Three days later, my phone rang. A man’s voice told me he’d seen a flyer outside his house describing a stolen harp. He said it was exactly the harp his next-door neighbor had recently obtained and showed him. He wouldn’t give me his name or number, but offered to get the harp returned to me. And two weeks later, after a series of circuitous telephone calls, he told me to meet a teenage boy at 10:00 p.m., in the rear parking lot of an all-night Safeway. I arrived to find a young man loitering in the lot. He looked at me, and said, ‘The harp?’ I nodded. Within minutes, the harp was in the back of my station wagon and I drove off.
“Twenty-five minutes later, as I turned into my driveway, I had the thought, This changes everything.”
That’s Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Ph. D’s personal X-File. And did you note the moments in her story where her inner FBI bosses made their displeasure known at the spookiness of the whole affair? “Finding lost objects with forked sticks?”—just imagine how she must have said this to herself. The kind of inner voice that speaks it. Then consider her feeling of embarrassment about the whole thing. Or how the idea of posting the flyers strikes her as crazy. All are evidence of inner FBI bosses in conflict with her inner Fox Mulder, and it is only her desperation and her concern for her daughter and her admiration for her friend and her dogged unwillingness to back down from a dare that kept her engaged in her adventure with dowsing.
Brings to mind a quote from the great psychologist Carl Jung. “Reason,” he says, “sets the boundaries far too narrowly for us, and would have us accept only the known … just as if we were sure how far life actually extends.” “[N]owadays most people identify themselves almost exclusively with their consciousness, and imagine that they are only what they know about themselves. Yet anyone with even a smattering of psychology can see how limited this knowledge is. Rationalism and doctrinarism are the disease of our time; they pretend to have all the answers.” That’s what Carl Jung says. And Elizabeth Mayer knows it. It’s the inner FBI bosses within her, telling her that she needed to reject dowsing a priori, without even trying it, because dowsing is by definition impossible. It’s supernatural. Can’t work. Ever. Kick it to the basement. Out of sight, out of mind.
Interestingly, when word of her experience got out to her medical and psychoanalytic colleagues, the dam broke and all of a sudden they began to inundate her with accounts of their own paranormal experiences. “The stories,” she says, “were all about knowing things in bizarrely inexplicable ways, like: ‘My patient walked in and I knew her mother had died—no clues—I just knew it instantly.’ Or: ‘I woke up in the middle of the night like I had heard a shot, and the next day I found out it was exactly when my patient took a gun and tried to kill herself.’ Or: ‘I suddenly felt that my partner’s son was in trouble. I called my partner, and it worried him enough that he tracked down his son. His son had been in a bad car accident and my partner got there just in time to make a decision about a surgery that probably saved his life.’” Elizabeth Mayer goes on to say, “I was particularly fascinated by how eagerly my colleague shared even the most weirdly personal stories with me. Their eagerness puzzled me, until I realized how badly people wanted to reintegrate corners of experience they’d walled off from their public lives for fear of being disbelieved.”
Does that ring a bell for you? Do you have a personal X-File? Have you ever experienced your internal Fox Mulder in a wrestling match with your internal FBI bosses? Fox Mulder, wanting to solve X-Files, but only at great risk….
But everything has a background. Everything has a story, and so do our internal FBI bosses. Where are they coming from? What exactly makes paranormal experience so off limits, so impossible, for them?
Parapsychologist Hoyt Edge sees it as a consequence, ultimately, of 16th and 17th century European thinkers trying to escape the oppression of the Church, and doing this by basically dividing reality into matter, on the one hand, and mind on the other.
The Church would still be authoritative, but only over the realm of the mind, which is the realm of values and purposes and free choices. “On the other hand,” says Hoyt Edge, “there was matter, which was non-thinking and had nothing to do with values (an atom is neither good nor bad). The material world was simply a machine that was determined, and the only stake that the Church should have in it was the assertion that it was the creation of God.” Over time, this conceptual revolution, triggered by philosophers like Rene Descartes, would lead to the rationalism and doctrinarism that we heard Carl Jung, a moment ago, describe as diseases of our time—a sense of what’s really real which remains solid and unshaken for most people even after almost 100 years of weird, mind-blowing revelations coming from the field of quantum physics. Matter completely inert, completely dead, just surface and no spiritual depth. Hoyt Edge describes it like this: “(1) Reality ultimately consists of basic units—in the material world these are indivisible material bits; (2) Atoms exist in a void; the purpose of the void is to separate the atoms, which are self-sufficient and inherently not connected to or dependent on other atoms; and (3) action occurs through contact, one atom bumping against another.” That’s the inner FBI boss conviction. So when it encounters something like dowsing—which involves getting information about something without anything bumping against anything at all (information secured at a distance)—it rejects it instantly. Harold McCoy, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, using his dowsing rod to find something out about what’s going on in Oakland, California. Impossible.
But it’s not impossible. It happened. Things like this happen. Elizabeth Mayer got the harp back, put it in the back of her stationwagon, came back home, turned into her driveway, and that was the moment when she realized that life had just addressed her with a huge question, and she would need to work hard to come up with some answers. She’d have to unleash her inner Fox Mulder. That’s what she’d have to do.
I love this moment. Brings me back to why I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I’m a Unitarian Universalist because I believe that the world and God are just too big to be defined by any one metaphor and by any one way. “The reason ours is a creedless faith,” says the Rev. Bill Schultz, “is because we have a theory about Creation and our theory—unlike that of most religious traditions—is that Creation is too grand, too glorious, too complex, and too mysterious to be captured in any narrow creed or reflected in any single metaphor.” Life is constantly addressing us with huge questions, challenging us to open up our minds and open up our hearts. And that’s what our faith calls us to. Even when we’re talking about weird stuff like the paranormal.
Got to get our inner Fox Mulder out of the basement. Get him working for us. His passion. His willingness to risk looking like a fool because he values truth more than appearances.
You know, in the X-Files TV show, a main theme is conspiracy. People wanting to silence Fox Mulder because if he does find out the truth, it’s going to be horrible. All that extraterrestrial stuff, that UFO stuff—just the government engaged in awful biological experimentation, stuff like that, and covering it up. But what I would leave you with today is the thought that paranormal experience, and parapsychology in general, would take us to a completely different, completely positive place. To a heightened, even supercharged sense of our Seventh Unitarian Universalist Principle of the interconnected web of all existence. How this interconnectedness is such that a dowser in Arkansas can use his dowsing rod to discover something true about what’s going on in California. Such that a therapist can wake up in the middle of the night, thinking he heard a shot, and later he learns that at that exact time his patient had tried to shoot herself. Mysteriously, we are connected together, people and things and planet, in a far deeper and more fundamental way than physical collision. Mind is not cut off from everything else, locked up in our skulls. The boundaries of our skin are not the boundaries of ourselves. No such thing as an absolute dualism of mind and body. Relationship is more real than separation. Human minds are not inexplicable intrusions in a nature otherwise full of dead matter but rather fruitions of awareness that belongs to everything, to some degree. The sacred is everyday and everywhere. This is a transformed sense of the world, a re-enchanted universe, and Fox Mulder would take us there. Here’s what he’s saying to all of us today: Here it is: “The truth is out there.”
Reading before the sermon:
Today’s reading comes from the Rev. Dick Fewkes, one of the original members of the Unitarian Universalist PSI Symposium. “PSI” is a letter of the Greek alphabet, and it refers to the paranormal, psychic, trans-sensory, intuitive areas of consciousness. Accordingly, the UU PSI Symposium, since its founding in 1970, has encouraged the study and practice of PSI as a pathway to personal development and spiritual growth.
A couple of months ago one of the major television networks did a program on “Secrets of the Psychics” in which they exposed the trickery and deception used by phony psychics and mediums to hoodwink the public and to make money off of it. The magician James Randi has done similar exposes. I enjoyed the program and appreciated learning how the phony psychics and mediums fool their unwitting subjects. Being an amateur magician myself I appreciated learning some more tricks of the trade.
However, I was bothered by the unspoken assumptions of the program—that since some so-called psychics and mediums are liars and cheats therefore all are, and moreover, all psychic and mystical experience, yours and others, should be suspect from the start. Those are assumptions I am not willing to make. For the fact of the matter is people in all times and places do have psychic and mystical experiences and they simply cannot be reduced to purely wishful thinking and unrealistic self-delusions, or worse, the attempt to manipulate and take advantage of others. Such experiences have to be understood on their own terms.
The great Harvard psychologist, William James, a pioneer in the study of religious and mystical experience, once said that it only takes one white crow to prove that not all crows are black. In other words some psychic and mystical experiences are genuine regardless of how many others may be false or delusional. Moreover, declared James, the deeper levels of human consciousness made manifest in mystical and telepathic states, ”forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality”, and that ”no account of the universe in its totality can he final which leaves these other forms of consciousness…disregarded.”
I have always felt that so-called “paranormal” phenomena and experiences are perfectly natural and are clues and signals about how we are connected to one another and to the source of life and the universe. The problem is we have too narrow a view of what we think is possible or normal in the kind of universe we live in.