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The Epistemology of Imagination

The Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann recalls a time when she was in the UK studying contemporary people who practice magic, when suddenly something inexplicable happened to her:

The author wrote that all these were just names for forces that flowed from a higher spiritual reality into this one, through the vehicle of the trained mind. And as I strained to imagine what the author thought it would be like to be that vehicle, I began to feel power in my veins — to really feel it, not to imagine it. I grew hot. I became completely alert, more awake than I usually am, and I felt so alive. It seemed that power coursed through me like water through a chute. I wanted to sing. And then wisps of smoke came out of my backpack, in which I had tossed my bicycle lights. One of them was melting.

This bizarre experience did not make Luhrmann a believer in a “higher spiritual reality.” She writes:

But just having a strange and powerful experience doesn’t determine what you believe. I walked off that train with a new respect for why people believed in magic, not a new understanding of reality. Sometimes people have remarkable experiences, and then tuck them away as events they can’t explain.

I find that truly fascinating. She goes on in this piece to tell the story of Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, who had a supernatural experience on the day of his wedding, involving his bride’s dead grandfather. Despite this inexplicable event, an event that was not subjective — that is, others observed it too — it did not change the atheistic materialist way he sees the world. Check out Shermer’s essay about it. His German fiancée had been sent from back home a box of her beloved late grandfather’s things. The box included his transistor radio, which did not work. Shermer says he tried to fix it, but it was unfixable. Here’s what happened next:

Three months later, after affixing the necessary signatures to our marriage license at the Beverly Hills courthouse, we returned home, and in the presence of my family said our vows and exchanged rings. Being 9,000 kilometers from family, friends and home, Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away. She whispered that she wanted to say something to me alone, so we excused ourselves to the back of the house where we could hear music playing in the bedroom. We don’t have a music system there, so we searched for laptops and iPhones and even opened the back door to check if the neighbors were playing music. We followed the sound to the printer on the desk, wondering—absurdly—if this combined printer/scanner/fax machine also included a radio. Nope.

At that moment Jennifer shot me a look I haven’t seen since the supernatural thriller The Exorcist startled audiences. “That can’t be what I think it is, can it?” she said. She opened the desk drawer and pulled out her grandfather’s transistor radio, out of which a romantic love song wafted. We sat in stunned silence for minutes. “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I’m not alone.”

Just like Luhrmann, Shermer concluded that this had not been a product of his imagination — though he admits that if he had heard this story from someone else, he would have written it off as some sort of hallucination — but he also did not draw any larger metaphysical lesson from it. Shermer bracketed it off as just one of those things.

You could say that people like this are professional skeptics who can’t let go of the convictions with which they make sense of the world, even when the facts of experience falsify them. And you would be right. When people say they would believe in God, or at least in the world of spirit, if only they would see evidence, I don’t believe them. I mean, I think this is the story they tell themselves, a story they believe to be true. But it probably isn’t true. In truth, they are more likely to dismiss the experience as a hallucination, or, if that is wildly implausible — as in the stories of Luhrmann and Shermer — then they will set it aside as an anomaly. Anything to keep the event from changing them. When his followers suggested to Jesus that he perform more miracles to win more disciples, Jesus said, in effect, that would do no good for people who are determined not to believe.

This is true even for some people who do not have a philosophical commitment to skepticism and materialism. In my soon-to-be-published book How Dante Can Save Your Life, I have a chapter about the living relationship we have to the dead: what Christians call “the communion of saints.” This is a major theme in the Divine Comedy. On his journey into the afterlife, the pilgrim Dante is awakened to this tinyhowdantereality, and how our relationship with our fellow man — that is, our fellow men who are not damned — continues even after this mortal life, and in fact continues across the boundary between life and death.

In the book, I tell the amazing story — one I have repeated on this blog — about how the ghost of my grandfather, Dede, lingered around my mom and dad’s house days after his death. He stayed near to my father, his son, with whom he had had a strained relationship in the last few years of his life. My father, a Methodist, gave me permission to call a Catholic priest to come deal with the matter. The priest brought with him a Cajun Catholic grandmother who had a powerful spiritual gift of discernment. From How Dante Can Save Your Life:

“It’s him,” said the priest. “And he says he can’t move on unless you help him get forgiveness.”

My father froze.

“Daddy,” I said, “tell him about what happened between you and Dede!”

And so he did, revealing everything about the pain of his father’s rejection and his fidelity to the old man in spite of it all. After he finished, Father Termini said quietly to my father, “Do you forgive him?”

“I do,” said my father, nearly breathless.

Father Termini blessed the house, and a week later he had a mass for the repose of Dede’s soul. There were no more ghostly visitations at our house.

I believe that upon his death, my grandfather saw how much his son had loved him, and how his son suffered and sacrificed for his sake. And Dede was remorseful. His sorrow was so great that he could not advance spiritually. He could not let go of this world without his son’s forgiveness.

Can I explain this theologically? No, not really. But I believe I saw the power of a living man’s forgiveness free the soul of a dead man trapped by guilt and let him move on to the next life.

To make this clear, I don’t have firm theological categories that can explain what happened that week in Louisiana — but I know that it really did happen. My father believes it was all real as well. And yet, as I document in the book, this did not change him in the least. Unlike Luhrmann and Shermer, my dad is a believer in God, so he has no prior commitments that prevent him from accepting what happened as having meaning (as opposed to being just one of those things).

And yet, for him, it was just one of those things. His refusal to take the meaning of this event into his heart and allow it to change him, to open himself to grace and to the power of forgiveness, has had dramatic, profoundly tragic repercussions in the relationship between him and me. And it had more hopeful implications for what it told me I needed to do to be healed. I tell the story in How Dante in hope that it shakes at least some readers out of egotistical obstinacy that threatens to rob them and their loved ones of so much.

We are all subject to deny truths about ourselves and the world around us that threaten our settled convictions. It is as true of atheists as it is of Christians, and anybody else. One way Dante saved my life — or rather, one way God used Dante to break through the high walls of egotism that kept me from His healing mercies — is by opening my imagination, and leading me to think of myself and the world around me in new ways. The one quality all of the souls in the Inferno share is utter confidence in themselves. In the mortal life, they made a hell for themselves by closing themselves off to metanoia — that is, repentance. And God gave them for all eternity what they loved on this earth: themselves.

To be open to repentance is to be open to the source of life. Dante teaches us that no spiritual progress is possible without humility. Humility requires us to admit that we don’t know everything. This is not a conversion of the mind; it is a conversion of the heart. Without it, we are stuck, certainly in this life, and perhaps in the next. In my grandfather’s case, I believe that after his death, God allowed him to see how he had wronged my father, and how my father had been looking out for his interests all along. God granted my dad and my grandfather an extraordinary grace by giving them the opportunity for forgiveness after Dede’s death.

The other night, standing before a crowded room in Dallas, I told a story from How Dante about how repentance opened up the spiritual pathways for me, and occasioned a life-changing mystical experience of God’s grace involving what I believe was an angel — an experience so powerful that even at this moment I can physically feel its effects. This is in the book, but I still felt strange talking about something so intimate and, well, freaky, in front of an audience. But it occurred to me as I halted that part of the humility that is saving my life is being willing to stand in front of people who might well think I’m crazy, and talk about what happened to me, about what God did for me, and how real it all is — and can be for them too.

How will these stories be received? It depends on the imagination of individual readers. Some will think I’m making it up, or was in some way deceived. Some will think they are true, but have no bearing on their own lives. But some will see and hear in these stories a sign of what is really real, and how repentance and forgiveness can change — and save — their lives, as it did mine. As Dante knew, this is not a matter of the mind; it’s a matter of the heart.

UPDATE: My friend the Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith writes with a personal story. He has given permission to me to share it with you. The first part is from the eulogy Frank gave for his father last month:

In December 2013, when my father had told us that he had cancer, I made it a point to pray for him each morning and each evening from that day forward. Although I wanted to do so by asking for the assistance of one of the great saints of the Church, who that saint would be was not obvious. After a little research, I discovered that St. Anthony of Padua was the patron saint of cancer victims. So, St. Anthony it was. Up until the morning my father died, I uttered the same prayer to St. Anthony twice a day, and had not told anyone what I was doing, not even my wife. On Saturday, when my mother was going through my father’s belongings, she handed me what looked like a tiny booklet, no more than a half an inch in height. She said that my father had carried it in his pocket for many years, though in the past 14 months he seemed more insistent that he always have it on his person. I never knew this about my Dad, and my mother confessed that she had never looked closely at the item and thus was not sure what it was. As she handed it to me, I noticed that on the front it read, “St. Anthony of Padua, Pray for Us.” On the inside was a medal and relic of St. Anthony, along with this prayer, “St. Anthony, help me experience peace of mind and heart in my present needs. Free me from needless worry and burdensome fears. Grant me unfailing trust and an awareness of God’s loving mercy. Amen.” If this had not happened to me, I would not have believed it. But it did happen, and I will never fail to see it as a gift of God by way of my father.

Frank adds:

The back story:

On February 10 my wife and I arrived in Rome for a semester-long research leave. Two days later I was contacted by my brother that my father’s health had taken a turn for the worse. So, we booked a flight from Rome to Las Vegas for Feb 16. (We grew up in Vegas and parents still reside there). I was able to see my father, and he knew we had arrived from Rome. I was sitting next to him when he died on the morning of Ash Wednesday, February 18. He died at 5:49 am, soon after I had said the rosary and the divine mercy. The day before I handed him the rosary beads that had been given to me when I met Pope Francis in June 2013. I put the beads in my father’s right hand and whispered in his ear, “The Pope gave me these rosary beads. I want you to have them.” When the mortuary arrived to pick up his body at my parents’ home, the beads were still in his hand.  They asked if I wanted the beads back. I said, “no.” So, they took the beads along with his body.  When my mother, siblings, and our spouses arrived at the mortuary the next day to make arrangements, I told the funeral director that the beads should remain with him.  During the wake the beads were beautifully displayed in his hands as he lay in the open casket. I then asked the funeral director for permission place the Padua medal in his jacket pocket. My father was buried with the beads in his hands and the medal in his pocket.

Since then:

We returned to Rome on Sunday night, March 1. On the 3rd my wife and I went for a walk to the Basilica of St. Mary of Trastevere. When you walk in, to your right, is a statute of what appears to be St. Joseph with the Baby Jesus. Underneath were a bunch of folded papers with notes on them. They were prayers and petitions. My wife suggested that I write something for my Dad. So, I did: “For the repose of the soul of Harold Joseph Beckwith (1930-2015).” Before we left the basilica we went into the gift shop. I noticed that there was a post card with a picture of statue under which I placed my prayer. I picked up the card, pointed to the picture on it, and asked the clerk, “Chi e questo?” She said, “Sant’Antonio di Padua.” I couldn’t believe it.

Frank continues:

What happened to me in the past three weeks has changed my life. I want every single moment from now on to count.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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