Sherlock Holmes and the Spirits

As a professor, I was there to equip open-minded students to analyze religious experiences, rather than to get them to … Continued

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.

About

Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is Professor Emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and Distinguished Scholar of the City University of New York.
  • TJ

    I lived in the same house from ages 1 to 10 and then we moved into a new house. One night soon after we moved I dreamed that the old house burnt down. I dreamed that my dad told me about it over the table saw that was still standing in our as of yet unfinished kitchen. I awoke in the morning and my dad fulfilled my dream precisely. Shall I conclude that the spirit of the old house was trying to contact me for one final ‘goodbye’?It’s painful to see fellow humans that want to believe something so badly that they’ll subjugate their own intellect in order to believe it.

  • Jon White

    There are no coincidences!

  • Castanea

    On numerous occasions, I’ve been awakened by hearing the voice of a loved one ringing in my ears, as if they were in the room with me. The kicker is that these people were still very much alive, but were living hundreds of miles away at the time.I’m sure all of us have heard voices such as this, perhaps due to nothing more than echoes of past memories or a particularly lucid dream. Hearing the “voice” of a dead loved one is really no different than hearing the voice of a living loved one who happens not to be present; it is not evidence that proves there is life after death.

  • Kenneth

    Mr. Arroyo,After reading your postings, I still can’t believe you’re a college professor. Obviously, the school you teach at could be considered mediocre at best.You still didn’t dicuss the evidence of life after death anyways.Again, the Washington Post cshould be ashmaned to publish such dribble.-Kenneth

  • Mr Mark

    “So what was my dream about Mr. Molnar? A “real” contact with my deceased father? Or just the mind playing tricks?”What do you think the most-likely answer? If you said, “just the mind playing tricks,” you win a cigar.

  • Hewitt

    KENNETH, FRANCOISSo Mr. Stevens-Arroyo is woefully wrong. His starting syllogism made me laugh out loud. But that’s no reason for the personal venom.Disagree with his arguments, but don’t condemn the person. Otherwise, you are no different from those who try to club people into believing by personal attacks.

  • John Griffith

    Stevens-Arroyo’s anecdotal evidence is unimportant, as he well knows. This kind of introspective testimony cannot be used to substantiate a claim of para-normalism (whatever that means).What is interesting are the three statements he opens with. I’ll reproduce them here so others do not have to go back to the full article:”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.”Now, no. 2 is out immediately. That some people draw certain causal relationships between events and the existence of “spirits” is not evidence of an afterlife. It is evidence of wishful thinking. Therefore, No. 2 is no more a proof of spirits than is Stevens-Arroyo’s personal story.No. 3 says nothing, if the so called “evidence” is false. No. 3 also begs the question, because it assumes that the evidence supporting the existence of the supernatural is true. Thus, no. 3 is out unless Stevens-Arroyo can provide this evidence (see no. 1).Which leaves no. 1. Now, even assuming the truth that there have been — let’s use Stevens-Arroyo’s chosen term of “para-normal” experiences for argument’s sake — that as yet have no scientific explanation, this does not even begin to approach proof of the existence of the supernatural. A scientific explanation of these experiences, presumably would rule out a para-normal explanation, and since a scientific explanation is still possible at some point in the future, to use no. 1 in an argument for the para-normal is absurd.There are many other criticisms that can be made of the reasoning in point no. 3, I will provide one more. Stevens-Arroyo seems to be committing the either-or fallacy. Either science can presently offer an explanation for X-experience, or it must be para-normal. This is clearly fallacious.

  • Mr Mark

    Dear Paganplace -Re: Sherlock Holmes & Conan Doyle. Your point about Doyle being a spiritualist have nothing to do with the conversation. Stevens-Arroyo cited Holmes as an example, not Doyle. Doyle put nothing of the spiritualist into Holmes when he created the character of Holmes.One may as well posit that Stephen King believes in the fantastic situations found in his dime store novels.

  • Anonymous

    organized beliefs. (pp194)”My father’s rejection of all that is called religious belief was not,asJohn Stuart Mill,quoted in “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell.

  • yoyo

    I believe in death after life.Religion has a big investment in death.

  • Bill

    The mind is firmly anchored to its material existence. If you’ve ever been under general anesthesia, where the conscious functioning of the mind is halted, you know that the time between when you go under and the time that you come to absolutely does not exist for you. Those who are in serious accidents often have no memory of the accident itself. This is not due to some kind of repression, but instead to the fact that the mind is disabled during the time that permanent memories are normally formed. If thought could exist without brain function, then neither of these things would happen. There are some people that will never believe what I’m saying – they “know” better. But once again – for those interested in reality – the world is the way it is – not the way we may wish it to be.

  • Paganplace

    “Without death,we wouldn’t need God.”I think that’s a narrow view of spiritual experience that some forms of religion unfortunately live down to, much to the sorrow of many. Maybe we wouldn’t need a ‘God’ of absolute control if we weren’t taught to fear death so blindly. But suppose that weren’t an issue… Could be there’s more. Me, I see atheists and monotheists squabbling about which side of an ultimately sterile and dead and painful universe, it’s ‘ultimately right’ to be on (after you’re dead, from that imagined point of view.) Could just be that life is bigger than what we think of it and that’s worth loving. The rest, it seems, is talk. Too often, I think, atheists and Christians both, like to project their fears of death onto others. I gotta tell you. If you’ve hurt enough, death is not the scariest thing out there. Life, on the other hand… Ain’t worth wasting worrying about What In Words Is Ultimately Right. Our experience is of our world being alive, and if one can see it otherwise, well, I don’t know what comfort that brings, but that’s OK if you can make it work. This… should not be a war.

  • yoyo

    Pagan Place;Hi. you are wrong to deduce that atheists project their fear of death onto others.

  • Godfrey

    There’s no point arguing with anyone’s mystical experience. You weren’t there, you don’t know what happened. You don’t know how long the story has cooked in the man’s mind before he told it, or whether any confabulation took place. You just have to accept it as a personal story, and say, “Huh. That’s interesting.”You don’t accept it as evidence of anything, either. The experience is completely subjective and unreproducible. It isn’t evidence. It’s a story.

  • locomoco

    Most responders who devalue Prof. Stevens-Arroyo’s personal experience are studiously dodging the key point.It was not that he woke up thinking that he heard his dad’s voice. I agree this, in itself, is meaningless.It was not so much that he was able to remember a particularly striking portion of his dream. If that was all there was to it, again, it’s meaningless.However, the fact that the uniquely relevant details of his dream wer corroborated by verifiable events is undeniably significant. No doubt this is why the naysayers have ignored that minor detail so assiduously.Those same naysayers cannot prove their contentions any more definitively than the believers can prove theirs. Moreover, no amount of blustering about “imaginary friends” or “childish fantasies” can remedy that defect. Therefore my respect goes more towards the classic agnostic (according to the true meaning of the term) than to the fundies of both extremes.Having had a couple of similar experiences myself, I concur with the Prof and John of the Cross that it’s really not possible to generalize them in such a way that they “prove” anything to anyone else. That certainly doesn’t minimize their profound significance in my own life.And in closing I must say it’s quite hilarious to see people making reference to the various beliefs of fictional characters — not as illustrations — but to buttress their arguments.

  • TJ

    Locomoco writes: “However, the fact that the uniquely relevant details of his dream wer corroborated by verifiable events is undeniably significant. No doubt this is why the naysayers have ignored that minor detail so assiduously.”The uniquely relevant details of my dream were corroborated by verifiable events as well. Shall I take my dream as constituting personal evidence for the afterlife of houses?

  • LUCIFER

    To/Brothers as Sisters,..as all good people to knowing God one must be equal with God, not the grovling, snivling,fools that we having become. You but allow others to brainwash as abuse that you become as servants to man,as prisoners unto their deceit cunning.God having no need or wish that you come a begging as a dog,unto its master to obey on call.Get off your knees,stand before God as your equal,thus win your freedom….Your BROTHER inARMS…LUCIFER xxx X

  • boberto G

    i thnk that what happend to you was a conection between you and your father. he probably wanted you to go to the wake.

  • boberto G

    i thnk that what happend to you was a conection between you and your father. he probably wanted you to go to the wake.

  • prisco

    i thnk that what happend to you was a conection between you and your father. he probably wanted you to go to the wake.

  • mike prisco

    i think ur dad wanted you to go to the funeral.he probably thought you would want to know and ur mother would forget.

  • mike prisco

    i think ur dad wanted you to go to the funeral.he probably thaought ud want to know and ur mother would forget.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father was trying to tell you that you should go to the funeral. it was to late for you to have gone,and he wanted you to know his friends died.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father was trying to tell you that you should go to the funeral. it was to late for you to have gone,and he wanted you to know his friends died.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father was trying to tell you that you should go to the funeral. it was to late for you to have gone,and he wanted you to know his friends died.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father was trying to tell you that you should go to the funeral. it was to late for you to have gone,and he wanted you to know his friends died.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father was trying to tell you that you should go to the funeral. it was to late for you to have gone,and he wanted you to know his friends died.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father was trying to tell you that you should go to the funeral. it was to late for you to have gone,and he wanted you to know his friends died.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father was trying to tell you that you should go to the funeral. it was to late for you to have gone,and he wanted you to know his friends died.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father was trying to tell you that you should go to the funeral. it was to late for you to have gone,and he wanted you to know his friends died.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father was trying to tell you that you should go to the funeral. it was to late for you to have gone,and he wanted you to know his friends died.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father was trying to tell you that you should go to the funeral. it was to late for you to have gone,and he wanted you to know his friends died.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father was trying to tell you that you should go to the funeral. it was to late for you to have gone,and he wanted you to know his friends died.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father was trying to tell you that you should go to the funeral. it was to late for you to have gone,and he wanted you to know his friends died.

  • mike prisco

    i think your father knew your mother would forget and wanted you to know his good friend died.

  • mike prisco

    i think your father knew your mother would forget and wanted you to know his good friend died.

  • mike prisco

    i think that your father wants you to visit his friend. this is probably why you heard his voice.

  • John T

    The attacks on Professor Stevens-Arroyo’s narrative (as well as on his person) seem based on the premise that all phenomena can be based on a logical, scientific explaination. Having already lived the better part of half my life, I disagree with that premise: there are events that can only be classified as “miracles,” illogical, or occuring without a rational basis. Is the glass half-empty or half-full? There are two signs in western society that a person is losing his or her marbles: 1) a person hears voices, or 2) a person talks about God. To write in one essay about both of these topics therefore removes all doubt for some readers. Professor Stevens-Arroyo has a right to tell us about his experiences. All the best to you, Prof. Professor Stevens-Arroyo.

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