The Dangerous Revival of Spiritualism
Theosophical Quarterly, April, 1920
For several weeks during the winter, a marked feature of the mental activity of New York has been supplied by the lectures of Sir Oliver Lodge, on Spiritualism, as practised by the members of the Society for Psychical Research. The lectures, delivered for the most part to crowded audiences at Carnegie Hall, have been widely announced on the bill-boards, in railroad stations and elsewhere, and have been commented on at length in the newspapers.
Before commenting on the substance and tendencies of these largely attended lectures, let us try to describe one of them, given at Carnegie Hall early in February.
The audience, which fairly filled the hall, was, in appearance, such an audience as attends the symphony concerts for which Carnegie Hall was built; not a gathering of fanatical votaries of Spiritualism, but simply a characteristic crowd of New Yorkers, who were taking in the lectures much as they would take in a new symphony by Rachmaninoff. Spiritualism has ceased to be an oddity, a sign of mental queerness, and has fallen into line with the ordinary topics and activities which occupy New York audiences in the evenings.
As far as the external part of the lecture went, Sir Oliver Lodge played his part well. Wearing his nearly seventy years lightly, he spoke easily, concisely, with notable clarity and consecutiveness; never hurried, never at a loss; quietly stopping, from time to time, to recover the exact phrase of some quotation; easily in command of his audience and his theme, in every way a strikingly good lecturer. Yet, as the hour or more of the lecture went on, one was conscious of a growing feeling of disappointment and depression, a feeling of uneasiness and dissatisfaction. An attempt will presently be made to find its cause.
For anyone who, in a general way, has followed the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research for the last thirty-five years, there was nothing very novel either in the material of the lecture, or in its conclusions. Sir Oliver Lodge followed the lines of his own experience, beginning with the early days when he was working with Huxley and Tyndall, the close of the period of materialism. In the beginning, he was unwilling even to grant the fact of thought-transference or telepathy; but this skepticism was finally broken down by the weight of fact and experiment, gathered chiefly by Professor W. F. Barrett, of the Dublin College of Science. Professor Barrett had been Tyndall’s assistant, and, working under Tyndall, had developed an excellent and conclusive method of experiment, which he transferred from physics to psychical science, finally furnishing a complete demonstration of the reality of telepathy, for anyone who had the industry to follow the records of his experiments, and the intelligence to understand their meaning.
Sir Oliver Lodge, announcing in his lecture that he had been converted to belief in telepathy, added the very interesting conclusion that thought-transference was not transmitted by any form of wave-motion, brain waves or other. He did not give his reason for this conclusion. We suppose that it is this: All wave-motions, such as light, heat, electricity, obey the law of inverse squares. But this law of diminution does not affect thought-transference, which appears to be wholly independent of distance in space; and is, therefore, presumably not carried by a wave-motion analogous to light.
Sir Oliver Lodge, convinced that thought-transference was a reality, and further convinced that thought was not transmitted by any form of brain-wave or other wave-motion, was thus led to believe in the possibility of one mind communicating directly with another, without the use of any material means of transmission. It remained to be seen whether such transmission was possible, between a mind allied with a body and another mind not so allied; in the ordinary phrase, whether communication with “spirits” was possible.
Numerous sittings with “mediums” followed, the best known being Mrs. Piper. Their results fill thousands of pages of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, in both England and America.
The first hypothesis was, that the medium simply read the mind of the sitter, by means of telepathy, and thus obtained material for messages from dead friends of the sitter. There were, however, messages covering facts not in the mind of the sitter, so far as the sitter was aware; but many of these had been known to the sitter in past years, and had simply sunk below the margin of conscious memory. The second hypothesis was, therefore, that the medium was able, by telepathy, to read not only the conscious, but also the sub-conscious, mind of the sitter.
Then there were facts, at no time known to the sitter, but known to other people, still living, who might be at the other side of the globe. Were these facts gleaned from that distant mind by the exercise of an extraordinary faculty of selective telepathy possessed by the medium, a mental power which was able to roam through space, as it were, until the needed fact was found in someone’s mind? It was evident that the telepathic hypothesis was being stretched to near the breaking point.
Mr. F. W. H. Myers was one of the central figures in these inquiries in England, as Mr. R. Hodgson was in the United States. These two men died full of their subject, and firmly determined to “send over” communications which would demonstrate their identity as the source of communications, and thus put the telepathic hypothesis out of court.
A large part of Sir Oliver Lodge’s lecture was devoted to an account of the efforts which he believed had been made by Myers, after his death, to establish his identity as the communicating subject. These evidences fell into two classes: messages which had the peculiar flavour of Myers’ mind, with its classical, poetical, psychical colouring; and messages cut up into several parts, each in itself unintelligible; each part being sent through a separate medium, and the parts being brought together at the office of the Society for Psychical Research. These dis-jointed fragments, which were later fitted together, are the so-called “cross-correspondences” which were canvassed in the daily papers at the time. Sir Oliver detailed a number of them. He added a series of somewhat sensational messages, such as one received from a man who went down with the “Lusitania,” psychically received in London before the telegraph brought news of the German infamy; various messages from men killed in the great war, and so on.
Such, in brief, was the substance of the lecture, which appeared to Sir Oliver Lodge satisfactorily to establish the fact of survival. And it seems probable that the clearness and consecutive reasoning of the lecture, taken with the commanding personality and scientific renown of the lecturer, convinced a large part of the audience of the reality of the kind of survival Sir Oliver Lodge believes in.
At this point two criticisms suggest themselves: one purely scientific, and the other moral. To begin with the scientific criticism: the whole of the material described by Sir Oliver Lodge seems to be second-hand material; not only was he himself not the observer of the various psychical states which he described, all his information coming to him through mediums; but even these mediums were not direct observers, since they were generally in different trance conditions while receiving the communications, so that they had no memory of them afterwards. The whole method, therefore, appears to us to be faulty and bad. But there is a graver scientific objection: the observers seem to jump to the conclusion that the communications which they describe are necessarily from human spirits, and they seem convinced that these spirits are, in general, the people whom they represent themselves to be.
Now, while we are ready to admit that, in rare cases, such authentic communications may and do occur, we hold, on the other hand, that the psychical world is infinitely more complex, and its inhabitants infinitely more varied, than these investigators seem to realize. The possibilities of trickery and deception, in that world of reflected images, are endless; what is really going on, we believe, can never be decided by observation within the psychic world itself, even where that observation is direct—as it is not, in the experiences we have been describing; the real facts can be discerned only from the plane above the psychic world, by an observer fully conscious on that plane; and in these experiments, there is no claim at all to that kind of consciousness; hardly any realization, even, that it exists, and must be used if trustworthy conclusions are to be reached.
But there is a far more serious objection, one which gains in weight, the more successful Sir Oliver Lodge is, in conveying to his audiences his own conviction as to “survival.”
To put it briefly: He is propagating belief in a non-moral, if not actually an immoral, immortality. For anyone who heard his lectures and accepted his conclusions, it would be quite natural to say: Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we—live!
There was no point in the lecture to which we listened, or in any of these lectures, so far as we can learn, at which it was made clear that real immortality must be fought for and attained, in a conflict every step of which calls for sacrifice, high valour, faith and purity of heart. Spiritual life had, apparently, no part in the matter; survival came as automatically as growth and old-age.
But, if we are right, thus to detach immortality from the realities of spiritual life, from the genuinely religious qualities, is to do a supremely dangerous thing. Let us try to bring this out, by what may appear an extreme illustration:
Let us suppose that the Powers of Good are ceaselessly striving to raise the consciousness of mankind to the spiritual plane, the plane of what we may call Buddhi-Manas, the plane of genuine immortality. And let us at the same time suppose that the Powers of Evil, aware that consciousness is inextinguishable, are trying might and main to limit human consciousness to their own plane, the highest plane which, being Powers of Evil, they themselves can reach: what has been called the plane of Kama-Manas; their object being, to keep human consciousness and human life within their own reach, within their own power, on a plane on which they can “feed on” it, so to speak.
Which of these forces, the Powers of Good, or the Powers of Evil, is helped by the work which Sir Oliver Lodge has in hand? Is it not quite evident that he is limiting the whole idea of immortality to the psychical plane, the plane of Kama-Manas, and is thus playing directly into the hands of the Powers of Evil? Some realization of this inevitable tendency of his work caused the sense of despondency and depression which the hearing of his lecture aroused, as has been recorded.
If men can gain immortality without holiness, and Sir Oliver Lodge appears to teach this, and even to teach that it is practically impossible not to attain immortality; then holiness is a superfluity; the whole of the religious life, in the deeper sense, is mere waste of time. Such a belief cannot fail to immoralize and sensualize the whole conception of immortality; it cannot fail to lead people to stop short of the supreme effort and sacrifice which, in our belief, are essential for the attainment of true immortality. The whole tendency, therefore, of this teaching is dangerous in the last degree. It makes for evil, and not for good.
If we reach this conclusion, and it appears to be unavoidable, then the question arises: How does it come that a man of Sir Oliver Lodge’s attainments, his scientific earnestness, his unquestioned devotion to truth, is thus led into a direction of work which we believe to be spiritually disastrous ?
The answer which suggests itself to our minds, is this: Sir Oliver Lodge has, we believe, been engaged in psychical research, with other members of the Society for Psychical Research, for thirty-five years or more. That Society was, in 1884, deeply interested in the work of Mme. H. P. Blavatsky, and in those teachings, given to the world through her, which many of us believe to be the teachings of the Lodge of Masters. At that time, therefore, the members of that Society, including Sir Oliver Lodge, were given the opportunity either greatly to help, or greatly to hinder, the beneficent work for the world which the Lodge of Masters had in hand.
Whether from innate skepticism, from cowardice, from sheer stupidity, or from whatever cause, they took, as a body, the baser way. Their agent, Richard Hodgson, who was at no time witness of any of the phenomena which he undertook to judge, based his whole case on hearsay, and on the testimony of avowed enemies. To put it on the best footing, that was stupid and fundamentally unscientific. But this obtuseness of method and conclusion was, after due consideration, adopted by the Society for Psychical Research, which undertook to brand Mme. Blavatsky as “an interesting fraud,” and this, because of their action, has become the official view of that splendid martyr to spiritual truth.
Had the Society for Psychical Research possessed what the old-fashioned phrase of the Prayer Book calls “grace, wisdom and understanding;” had they first understood, and then courageously supported, the genuine spiritual teachings which were then within their reach, the result might have been incalculable good for the whole human race. But, as we have said, they took the baser way. And it seems to us that, through the operation of Karmic law, because they refused to work the works of light, they are now led to work the works of darkness. Having had a superb opportunity to forward the true spirituality, the knowledge of the true immortality, and having, after full deliberation, turned their backs upon that “open door of heaven,” they find themselves, these five and thirty years, floundering in the morass of psychism, teaching a false immortality and, by that teaching, undermining the spiritual life of mankind.
Sir Oliver Lodge did not take, it is true, any prominent part in the attack made by the Society for Psychical Research on Mme. Blavatsky in 1885. But neither did he take any part in defending her against attack. He is, therefore, it seems to us, fully implicated in the Karma of obscurantism and delusion incurred by the Society; and he is, day by day, in these lectures of his on non-moral immortality, not so much paying the penalty, as incurring ever deeper indebtedness. There can be no graver spiritual offense than to keep back spiritual light from mankind by attacking and defaming the bringers of the light.