As a professor, I was there to equip open-minded students to analyze religious experiences, rather than to get them to believe in the afterlife or disbelieve in spirits. My main objective was to have them prepared to understand that religion explains such events as evidence of life after death.
In my classes on religion over the past twenty years, a question about speaking with the dead always shows up in a course. I can practically recite my response with my eyes shut, making three points:
No. 1. Yes, there are para-normal experiences amply documented in the past and continuing into the present that as yet have no scientific explanation.
No. 2. Some people conclude there are reasons to attribute the events to spirits, thus indicating an after-life.
No. 3. Even in the face of evidence contradicting their pre-determined convictions, some will refuse to believe there is life after death.
Before explaining (just) one of such personal experiences, let me register that contact with spirits does not make someone a better person than others. John of the Cross, Doctor and saint of the Catholic Church, has formulated better than anyone I know the theological meaning of spirit contact. He states clearly that such manifestations are not “revelation” to be added to the scriptures. Rather, they are “gifts” to individuals to advance their faith. In the thinking of the Mystical Doctor, spirit contacts are just as likely to be found among the doubting as they are among the saintly. In all cases, they do not guarantee salvation or holiness. Moreover, it should be obvious that much less theological importance is attached to spirit tip-offs about winning lottery numbers.
University students like mine in a secular, state-run college can be a tough audience. Nonetheless all my courses on religion were oversubscribed and I was voted “Best Teacher” in the college more than once, so I think recounting spirit contact achieves the chief educational goal of getting people to think.
The incident unfolded this way. Some years ago, I awoke suddenly from my sleep at the sound of my father’s voice, ringing in my ears. Since my Dad had passed away a decade before, it was impossible for his voice to have been physically present. (St. John of the Cross describes this occurrence as an “inner voice.”) It was not an ordinary experience for me: I found myself sweating profusely, greatly disturbed by my interrupted dream and unable to fall back to sleep.
In my dream, I was in the German-American restaurant/clubhouse in Philadelphia, where on only one occasion a dozen years before I had dined with my Dad and one of his best friends, Mr. Molnar. In my dream, I was staring at an outer wall where hung portraits such as Mr. Molnar loved to collect. My father’s voice in the dream called me to turn away from the wall and to return to the dining table. As I imagined myself turning to a dining table, I was suddenly face-to-face with Mr. Molnar lying dead in his coffin. It was not a gruesome sight, like in a Dracula movie, but more like the visage of the dearly departed in a funeral parlor. I called my Mom on the phone once the sun was up. After an exchange of pleasantries, I asked about Mr. Molnar. (I did not tell her about the dream, since I didn’t presume there was anything to it: but I was curious). She responded: “Oh! I forgot to tell you. Mr. Molnar died two days ago and his wake was last night.”
Those who explore the patterns of spirit communication would say that my father’s spirit wanted me to honor the passing of his friend and supplied a message in a dream – when my normal defenses would screen out such contacts – so that I would know what my mother forgot to tell me. But there are non-religious ways to interpret this incident. They range from having eaten a bad piece of meat, to having subconsciously read the obituary in the newspaper, to suggesting that my memory is faulty. I have always been fascinated, first, by the number of reasonable explanations from students; and second, how the same explanations were repeated year after year in different classes.
My students have never seemed afraid to challenge me in the classroom, perhaps because I encourage different points of view. I did maintain order: no one is allowed to insult others or to proselytize. As a professor, I was there to equip open-minded students to analyze religious experiences, rather than to get them to believe in the afterlife or disbelieve in spirits. My main objective was to have them prepared to understand that religion explains such events as evidence of life after death. While this comforts those who entered the classroom as believers, it also makes them accept the premise that it is reasonable to look for scientific explanations first before claiming spirit intervention. The agnostics, on the other hand, were invited to consider that their disbelief is conditioned because they have not experienced the spirits yet. It has always been my hope that students would become like Sherlock Holmes, who was supposed to have said something like: “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It’s the only reasonable and logical position to assume about spirit contact.
So what was my dream about Mr. Molnar? A “real” contact with my deceased father? Or just the mind playing tricks? My answer follows the teachings of St. John of the Cross. What happened is for me and for me alone to decide.