One of the longest-running science fiction series in network television history is The X-Files, which originally aired in the 1990s up till 2002 but is now back. In the show, X-Files are unsolved cases involving mystical and 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.
His name is Fox Mulder.
First time we meet him, he’s in his office, in the basement of the FBI building, the very bowels, and you can’t get any lower than that in the bureaucratic food chain.
It’s a clear message from his FBI bosses about their general attitude towards the whole X-File business.
That image of the “X-File”: it is loaded with powerful themes: mystery and curiosity, but also denial, disdain, and serious risk to one’s career. An X-File means all of that together.
But X-Files aren’t just fiction.
Let’s turn to a real-life X-File.
I found it in a book by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Ph. D., entitled Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind. It’s Dr. Mayer’s personal X-File, and it 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 Dr. Mayer’s personal X-File. In the form of a dowser from Fayettville, Arkansas named Harold McCoy, she encountered evidence of a truly mystical faculty in human beings that transcends the limits of the physical, and all it needs is something to focus it, to give it expression.
It fired up her inner Fox Mulder, for sure.
But also her inner FBI bosses, who were very clear in their displeasure about the whole thing. “Finding lost objects with forked sticks?”—just imagine how she must have said this to herself. Or how the idea of posting the flyers struck her as crazy. It is her desperation and her concern for her daughter and her admiration for her friend and her liking of Harold McCoy’s voice and her dogged unwillingness to back down from a dare that kept her engaged in her adventure with dowsing, despite what the inner FBI bosses said.
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 mystical 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.”
Have you ever had an experience like Dr. Mayer’s, or like those of her colleagues? But perhaps your inner FBI bosses have your inner Fox Mulder in a headlock, and your story has remained unvoiced and unintegrated in your life….
This was so for many years, for the labor activist, feminist, award-winning journalist, and fourth-generation atheist Barbara Ehrenreich who, in her book, Living with a Wild God, described how she has endeavored all her life to come to terms with a mystical experience she had as a teenager, when she was walking the streets of a small town in California. In the pre-dawn hours of early morning, she directly and viscerally realized how she and the world were one, that her separation from it was an illusion, and time stood still. She says, “the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. […] It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze… I could not speak of it because I lacked the words, and I could not recapture the experience any more than a burned-out filament could be used to light a fresh bulb.”
This is real-life X-File. And the FBI bosses in her head are very loud. They say (and Barbara Ehrenreich records their words faithfully): “Here we leave the jurisdiction of language, where nothing is left but the vague gurgles of surrender expressed in words such as ‘ineffable’ and ‘transcendent.’ For most of the intervening years, my general thought has been: if there are no words for it, then don’t say anything about it. Otherwise you risk slopping into ‘spirituality’, which is, in addition to being a crime against reason, of no more interest to other people than your dreams.”
What do you think? Do you agree with her inner FBI boss assessment against her own inner Fox Mulder experience”? That she is slopping into spirituality? That she is committing a crime against reason?
That if there’s no words for something, shut up already?
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 two categorically different substances: matter and mind. 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 solidify into inflexible dogma about the way the world is, which is as bad as any fundamentalism you would encounter in religion. A dogma that remains solid for most people even after almost 100 years of weird, mind-blowing revelations coming from the field of quantum physics.
The dogma says that matter is completely inert, completely dead, just surface and no spiritual depth. Hoyt Edge teases this out into three claims:“(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. The dogma.
So when it encounters something like dowsing—which dares to suggest that mind and matter are not categorically distinct after all but can mingle and merge in ways that confound current science—well. Instant rejection.
But it’s not impossible. It happened. Things like this can happen. Elizabeth Mayer got the harp back, put it in her stationwagon, drove 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.
And this is 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.”
This includes metaphors that come from reductionist materialist science and the heirs of Descartes.
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 mystical.
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.
In the show, the conspiracy tries to cover up the truly terrible fact that the government is engaged in awful biological experimentation on humans.
But in the real world, what’s being covered up is the opposite of terrible. If our inner Fox Mulders were given free reign, I believe that what would come to collective light is the realization that our Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle is true, but in deeper ways than we might ever have thought.
How this interconnected web of all existence is such that a dowser in Arkansas can use his dowsing rod to discover something true about what’s going on in California.
How interconnectedness means 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.
How interconnectedness means that a teenager back in the 1950s can experience the world flaming into life, a furious encounter with a living substance coming at her from all things at once, and she became one with all.
Mystically, mysteriously, all things are connected together, people and things and planet, in a far deeper and more fundamental way than physical atoms colliding. Appearances are deceiving; the boundaries of our skin appear to be the boundaries of ourselves but it doesn’t have to be. Relationship is more real than separation.
There are time-stands-still moments, when we come to know who we truly are.
“We stand on the edge of all that is great,” says the true life version of Fox Mulder who comes from our own spiritual tradition and who devoted his entire life to blowing the lid off of the conspiracy in his day, which was 150 years ago. His name is Ralph Waldo Emerson. “We stand on the edge of all that is great, yet are restrained in inactivity and unacquaintance with our powers, like workers of the hive every one of which is capable of transformation into the Queen Bee. We are always on the brink of an ocean into which we do not yet swim… But suddenly in any place, in the street, in the room, will the heaven open, and the regions of wisdom be uncovered, as if to show how thin the veil…”
Let the heaven open
Let the regions of wisdom be uncovered
Let us know how truly thin the veil is