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Nonconversion Stories

People who encounter the numinous ... and nothing happens

It’s common to hear people say that they would believe in God if only they had some proof. What constitutes proof? Well, aside from a laboratory proof, there would be the matter of an extraordinary personal experience of the sort that, in a stroke, destroys one’s disbelief.

Many people think that a personal encounter with the divine (or at least the numinous) would convert them, but I think more than a few of these people deceive themselves. If one has the will to disbelieve, one will find a way to explain away anything. (On the other hand, if one really wants to believe, one is likely to find evidence where it is implausible, but that’s another story.)

Ross Douthat wrote a good column this week about these “nonconversion stories,” which he defines as “stories about secular moderns who have supernatural-seeming experiences without being propelled into any specific religious faith.” For example, Douthat writes about the case of the late A.J. Ayer, one of the most prominent positivist philosophers of the 20th century, who had a strange life-after-death experience that did not involve any aspects of traditional religious iconography or themes (e.g., he did not meet Jesus), and which did not result in Ayer abandoning his atheism. But he did emerge from it more open to the possibility that there is an aspect of ourselves that survives death of the body.

Here’s another one:

As a young man in the 1960s, the filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, of “RoboCop” and “Showgirls” fame, wandered into a Pentecostal church and suddenly felt “the Holy Ghost descending … as if a laser beam was cutting through my head and my heart was on fire.” He was in the midst of dealing with his then-girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy; after they procured an abortion, he had a terrifying, avenging-angel vision during a screening of “King Kong.” The combined experience actively propelled him away from anything metaphysical; the raw carnality of his most famous films, he suggested later, was an attempt to keep the numinous and destabilizing at bay.

Verhoeven’s experience strikes me as being true to human nature, or at least the nature of some humans. His anti-theism, in practice if not in theory, is the opposite of a courageous willingness to face the truth; it is rather fleeing from a truth that one doesn’t wish to accept, because doing so would require one to change one’s life. While I never had anything like Verhoeven’s unnerving experience happen to me, it’s undeniably true that in my early twenties, I worked for years to keep religious belief at a distance. Even though I accepted God’s existence – the God of the Bible, I mean — I didn’t want to commit myself to the implications of that truth, because I didn’t want to change my life. I ran like Verhoeven ran. By the grace of God, my flight did not last so long, nor, happily, did it lead me to make trashy movies. But I understand where Verhoeven is coming from – or rather, what he’s running from.

Douthat’s list of examples includes that of Exorcist film director Billy Friedkin, who wrote in a recent issue of Vanity Fair about a chilling set of events in Italy, surrounding his meeting earlier this year with famed exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth (who, quite elderly and weak, died later that summer). Father Amorth, with the permission of the possessed woman, allowed Friedkin to witness an exorcism – the first the director had ever seen – and to film it. Excerpt:

I showed the video of Rosa’s exorcism to two of the world’s leading neurosurgeons and researchers in California and to a group of prominent psychiatrists in New York.

Dr. Neil Martin is chief of neurosurgery at the UCLA Medical Center. He has performed more than 5,000 brain surgeries and is regularly cited as in the top 1 percent of his specialty. On August 3, I showed him the video of Rosa’s exorcism. This is his response: “Absolutely amazing. There’s a major force at work within her somehow. I don’t know the underlying origin of it. She’s not separated from the environment. She’s not in a catatonic state. She’s responding to the priest and is aware of the context. The energy she shows is amazing. The priest on the right is struggling to control her. He’s holding her down, as are the others, and the sweat is dripping off his face at a time when she’s not sweating. This doesn’t seem to be hallucinations. She appears to be engaged in the process but resisting. You can see she has no ability to pull herself back.”

I asked Dr. Martin if this was some kind of brain disorder. “It doesn’t look like schizophrenia or epilepsy,” he said. “It could be delirium, an agitated disconnection from normal behavior. But the powerful verbalization we’re hearing, that’s not what you get with delirium. With delirium you see the struggling, maybe the yelling, but this guttural voice seems like it’s coming from someplace else. I’ve done thousands of surgeries, on brain tumors, traumatic brain injuries, ruptured brain aneurysms, infections affecting the brain, and I haven’t seen this kind of consequence from any of those disorders. This goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced—that’s for certain.”

I also showed the video to Dr. Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon and clinical specialist in epilepsy surgery, seizure disorder, and the study of human memory. He is based at both UCLA and the Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. This was his conclusion: “It looks like something authentic. She is like a caged animal. I don’t think there’s a loss of consciousness or contact, because she’s in contact with the people. She appears to respond to the people who talk to her. It’s a striking change in behavior. I believe everything originates in the brain. So which part of the brain could serve this type of behavior? The limbic system, which has to do with emotional processing of stimuli, and the temporal lobe. I don’t see this as epilepsy. It’s not necessarily a lesion. It’s a physiological state. It seems to be associated with religious things. In the temporal lobe there’s something called hyper-religiosity. You probably won’t have this in somebody who has no religious background. Can I characterize it? Maybe. Can I treat it? No.”

I asked Dr. Fried if he believed in God, and he took a long pause before answering: “I do believe there is a limit to human understanding. Beyond this limit, I’m willing to recognize an entity called God.”


I strongly suggest that you read the whole thing, especially to the conclusion, in which Friedkin details the “living nightmare” that he stumbled into.

And yet: Friedkin still describes himself as an “agnostic,” though one that believes in the reality of exorcism. I don’t know how he pulls that off, quite frankly. I would think that most people, having experienced the things that Friedkin has, would convert to Christianity. Yet the will to disbelieve is durable.

Then again, it’s not entirely fair to ascribe this to “the will to disbelieve.” As Douthat writes in his column:

But the implausibility of hard materialism doesn’t mean the cosmos obviously confirms a Judeo-Christian paradigm. And the supernatural experiences of the irreligious — cosmic beatitude, ghostly enigmas, unclassifiable encounters and straight-up demons — don’t point toward any single theology or world-picture.

I hope you will read Douthat’s entire column. In it, there’s a link to an absorbing account of a New York journalist who believes that she communicated through a medium with the spirit of her dead husband. Hers is a story that does not fit into a Christian structure. But you know, I can’t say with confidence that I disbelieve it. Longtime readers (and those who read my Dante book) know the story of how my grandfather’s tormented soul lingered around the house of his son, my father, for a week, until an exorcist came, and it was discovered that my grandfather could not move on until my (deeply shocked) father’s forgiveness set him free. That event doesn’t fit into a Protestant paradigm (my parents and my late grandfather were Methodists), and it can only fit into a Catholic paradigm if you consider that my grandfather was in a form of Purgatory. The exorcist, now deceased, told me at the time that he had learned from his work not to try too hard to impose a frame on these experiences. For him, it was enough to trust in the liberating power of Jesus Christ. For Father Termini, it was enough to know that a soul had been bound in some sense by unresolved business, and that true forgiveness had set that soul free to go where it was supposed to go.

But where was the soul going? Father didn’t guess.

Anyway, stories like the ones Douthat brings up in his column unsettle me, in part because they make me aware of how contingent my own religious conversion was on cultural framing. I was first struck by a life-changing encounter with the numinous at the Chartres cathedral. But what if it had been in a Hindu temple? A mosque? A Tibetan Buddhist monastery? Today, as a committed Christian, if I walked into a holy place belonging to another religion, and had a knock-down-drag-out mystical experience testifying in some unmistakable sense to the truth of that religion (and denying the truth claims of Christianity), I would not trust it at all. I would frame it as a hallucination or some form of demonic deception testing my faith in Jesus Christ.

If I know that that would be my response (or at least hope that it would be), then how can I judge too harshly the skepticism or rejection of mystical experience of others?

I am interested to hear your stories of personal mystical experience. Did you accept it as valid? Why or why not? Did you change your life because of it? Why or why not? Did it fit your preconceived religious ideas? If not, how do you explain it?

UPDATE: A reader sends these opening lines of C.S. Lewis’s book Miracles:

In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing.

For this reason, the question whether miracles occur can never be answered simply by experience. Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.

UPDATE.2: I just remembered one of the strangest and most challenging films I’ve ever seen: a 2008 documentary called Unmistaken Child. It’s about the death of a Tibetan lama, and the search for his reincarnated self, which is discovered in a young boy. You’re thinking, “Yeah, right.” And so was I. Watch the movie, though. I didn’t know what to make of it when I saw it, and I still don’t. This kind of thing is not supposed to happen, not in my belief system. But there is a lot to have to explain away. It’s a seriously unsettling film.



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