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Sunday, January 24, 2010

How I Became Interested In The Paranormal Part 2 - by John Craton

I think what may have softened my total rejection of the paranormal was, ironically, The Skeptical Inquirer. I subscribed to that periodical initially because it does present evidences to debunk fraudulent claims of the paranormal. But it goes well beyond that. One of its chief contributors when I subscribed was the renowned skeptic James Randi. Randi has done remarkable work demonstrating a number of psychic hoaxes throughout his career, but Randi also is a confirmed atheist who believes in a closed universe. His belief system does not even allow for the possibility of anything outside of the physical universe. As I am a Christian, and also a scientist, I see that construct as both anti-religion and anti-science. For science to be genuine it must operate on the assumption that anything is possible. If we begin by stating the paranormal cannot happen, then we are not being fully objective. (It is no more scientific to rule out a paranormal explanation of an event than it is to assign the term “paranormal” to an event without first investigating normal alternatives. Neither is being open-minded because each has closed itself to a possible interpretation of events.)

So reading Randi and other confirmed atheists in the SI had the opposite effect on me than was intended by their writings – I felt that if they couldn't even admit the possibility of a supernatural being (God) which I could, then perhaps I should allow the possibility for the paranormal to explain some things that even yet I still don't fully understand.

With everything balancing out, I came to realize that indeed most of what I'd earlier considered paranormal either did have normal explanations or were thoroughly and intentionally bogus; but there were nonetheless some things that could not yet be explained away by either of these criteria. While not admitting that there are paranormal events occurring round us, I cannot say beyond a reasonable doubt that they do not occur. Some things so far simply defy any reasonable explanation, and these are the things that still intrigue me.

For some time I have wanted to form a team of objective investigators to do the type of field study we often read about and which has now become a popular television event. But to date I've not done this for a number of reasons. First and perhaps most critically, I simply never have had the time. Now that my children are grown, perhaps I'll eventually have some time to devote to this pursuit, but so far it simply hasn't happened. Second, I would want the group to investigate in a scientific and objective manner and I have not yet found a group of similarly minded and/or trained individuals in my area to work with. And third, I would want the group to work within a Christian framework. And therein lies a major rub since many Christians reject all such investigations, feeling they are somehow occultic in nature and therefore prohibited activity. One must have a careful balance between that point of view and the point of view that accepts the use of occult practices in one's investigation. Perhaps I'm setting my standards too high, but these are some of the criteria I have set.

And although this paper is specifically about how I became interested in the paranormal, I will mention briefly a passing interest in cryptozoology as well. While the two are often considered together, they are not at all in the same category as cryptozoology is the study of physical, material species that simply have not yet been cataloged and categorized. The two studies are alike only in the sense that they both involve things that have not yet been fully explained. If, for instance, someone someday captures, studies, and catalogs an actual chupacabra, there would be nothing supernatural or paranormal about that … it would mean only that we would have discovered and confirmed a new species of animal.

I have had only one experience with something that might fit into a cryptozoological framework, and it is rather tenuous. Nevertheless, since it was a somewhat frightening experience and quite memorable, I will recount it here:

One summer while I was in undergrad, I spent a few days with some cousins who were in Alabama visiting their grandparents who lived on a farm just outside of Weedowee. One evening after supper my two cousins and I decided to go for a walk along a dirt road that led into the forest. We walked perhaps a mile to a point where we were surrounded on both sides by thick trees. At that point the sun had just begun to set, so we decided it was time to turn round and head back home. While we were stopped briefly, we heard a strange cry from deep in the woods on one side. It was a sound unlike any that any of us had ever heard before, but we thought it probably was an owl or other similar bird. It sounded as though it came from about 100 yards or so from the road. One of my cousins, when he heard the shrill cry, whistled back to it in a similar fashion, more I think just to imitate the sound than anything. But the creature – whatever it was – replied! My cousin whistled again a few times, and each time the cry would come back from the trees, only gradually growing closer. By this time we were already walking back the way we'd come, and the creature was coming towards the road at an angle where we would intersect paths before very long. Since none of us were sure what kind of creature we were dealing with (as it got closer we could hear fundamental frequencies that indicated that this might be something large, especially as the sound seemed to be coming from about 8-10 feet off the ground), my cousin stopped whistling to it. It continued to cry out, however, and we could tell from the sound that it was getting closer and closer. We began to grow rather concerned as we had nothing with us to protect ourselves if this thing turned out to be a wildcat or something worse. When it sounded as though the creature was about 20-30 yards from the road (we still had seen nothing, only heard the cry – and it was growing much darker now that the sun had set) we came to the woods' end where the road then ran next to a field. We heard the creature come to the very edge of the wood – it would not come out into the field – where it cried after us for some time in a very plaintive voice, as though it wanted us to come back. We were all quite glad to get back to the house where we could ask the grandmother what the creature was. None of us had ever heard a sound like it, but since she had lived in the area for nearly 80 years we were sure she would solve the mystery for us and let us know what we'd been trying to avoid encountering. But when we asked he if she'd heard the noise (she had) and what it was, she replied that she thought it was us making a strange noise in the wood as she had never heard a sound like it before in her life!

I still have no idea what we heard that night, whether owl, hawk, cat, or some unknown species. But whatever it was, the cry is still quite audible in my brain but one I have never heard the likes of before or since. Nor have I ever heard an animal that seemed to express the kind of lugubrious emotion we heard as it came to the edge of the wood, knowing that we were not stopping. It would be nice to know what we encountered that night, but I doubt we ever shall.

Besides these two instances described in this little treatise (the falling stones and the strange animal cry), I cannot say I have had any other paranormal experiences in my life. I know that a lot of people become interested in paranormal investigations because they have a number of unusual events happen to them which they would like explained. But besides these two, I have had only one other instance of something happening that one might call paranormal or supernatural, and that was a religious event that my priest suggested I not tell anyone about.

While the church in which I grew up was rather down on anyone messing around with the supernatural or paranormal, and while it denied that such things as miracles or other supernatural events occur today, I now belong to a much older faith tradition (Eastern Orthodoxy) that neither denies the presence of the supernatural nor criticizes those who investigate the paranormal (so long as one doesn't deviate into actual occultism in the process). Even so, there are not many Christians who like to entertain serious studies in these areas, so it is nice to find a group who does, even though it is on the other side of the planet. I don't know that I can make any significant contributions to the group's efforts, but I welcome the opportunity to share ideas and experiences with those who also approach the subject within a Christian framework.

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