Brad Hirschfield: Is the Paranormal Real?

By Brad Hirschfield

Is the paranormal, real?  How about when it is not only paranormal, but outside the bounds of any formal or even known faith system?  Should experiences we have – experiences which can neither be explained by science, nor put in a particular religious context be trusted?  These are some of the questions addressed in Mutants and Mystics, a new book by Jeffrey J. Kripal. (Visit the Patheos Book Club for more conversation on this book.)

Reading this book was a singular experience.  In other words, it was really weird.  Writing about the reality of everything from comic books to personal experiences with the paranormal, Kripal’s book jumped into the world of fantasy literatures and fantastic experiences, often demanding that his reader follow him there with same belief in such things that animate the author’s life.  Personally, I am not sure that I wanted to go there, but after reading the book, I am very glad that did.

I am not as interested in debates about what is or is not “really real.”  I find that such debates, and in many ways this book is very much a part of that debate, either give too little credit to the reality of individual experience, or, as in Kripal’s case, confuse the fact that an experience can be real because we feel it to have happened, with insisting that because we feel it, it must be a part of physical reality.

Things can be real to us – shape our lives, influence our decisions, etc. even if they are not real to others.  Think that’s not true?  Think about being in love with another person.  Are they “really” as you experience them?  Do others need to experience them that way in order to justify the fact that you do?  Of course not!

So why did I like this book?  Because while Mutants and Mystics may have fought an ideological fight in which I do not like to participate, it did so in the name of a larger insight from which we can all benefit.

Kripal invites us to think about the amazing possibilities in life which fit into no particular orthodoxies – neither those of strict scientism, not those demanded by fundamentalist understandings of any particular faith.  He takes personal experience seriously, and in doing so, invites us to see our lives as more exciting and more meaningful than we may often give ourselves credit for.  Even if I didn’t agree with all of his premises, that powerful conclusion rang out, and it’s one worth paying attention to.

In the closing lines of the book, the author invites us “to become our own authors and artists of the impossible”.  He sets aside the arguments about what is really real, stops trying to convince, and instead liberates.  He liberates his readers to see themselves as part of a long unfolding story – one which includes “traditional” religions, esoteric mystery traditions, science fiction and fantasy literature – a story in which life always holds more richness than we first assume, and which is, if we pay attention and work at it just a bit, is actually available to all of us.

As Thanksgiving approaches, you  might say that we should be thankful for any opportunity to be reminded of that.

Listed three years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis, and recognized as one of our nation’s leading Preachers & Teachers by, think tank President, talk show host, interfaith activist, and diversity expert Brad Hirschfield is the author of You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism (Harmony, 2008).

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