Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
My ministry is bereavement for young widows and widowers. I asked one of my priests if he could speak on why people should not seek out a medium. A local medium/psychic is drawing a lot of attention. I thought I'd try to educate people on why we shouldn't seek hope by trying to contact the dead. What are your views on this topic?
-- K., via email
There are two basic reasons why every major religious tradition does not believe in consulting people who say they can speak to the dead. First, most mediums are fakes, and second, trying to contact the dead is a bad spiritual idea.
Fakery is always morally corrupt, but preying on the grief of mourners is particularly offensive. They're especially vulnerable to any appeal that offers a refutation of human finitude. The fake medium says in effect, "Death is not real because it does not really cut off your ability to communicate with your loved one. I have the phone number to the next world, and if you pay me money, I will make the call for you."
When a priest, minister, rabbi or imam comforts mourners, we try to give them ways to keep their hope alive while also accepting death's decree. The medium pretends to provide ways to deny death. This is not just a cruel deception; it can also be an obstacle to a person's grief work, which is all about accepting death and moving on to a new future, scarred but not disabled by the past.
However, what if the medium is real and what if it is indeed possible to speak to the dead? If so, should we do it? This is a question that looks hard but is truly easy to answer. It's like the question, "If you could know the day and year you will die, would you want to know this?" I think, upon very brief reflection, most people would not want to know. The answer could stymie ambition, love and free will and promote a self-defeating fatalism.
We do better when certain spiritual barriers are not breached, and the main barrier erected by God is the barrier between life and death. As we are taught in Deuteronomy 29:29, "The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever . . . " When we are alive, this world of the living ought to be our main focus. After death, our soul's journey continues (or if the materialists are correct, it ends utterly), but, in either case, death marks the end of our earthly life. This is how God intends the barrier between life and death to work.
In life, we are sustained by a religious belief that death is not the end of us. It is a belief. If you could talk to a dead person, then you would not need to believe in life after death. You would have empirical proof, and religion is not about proof. Religion is about belief.
This confusion of belief and proof also arises in the debate about near death experiences (NDEs). The many reports of people who've been resuscitated after traumatic injuries and talk about floating over their bodies or going down a tunnel of light and seeing their relatives may be true or they may be false.
Such an experience may be a kind of neural mirage, but whatever it is, it's not belief. It is an understandable but religiously misguided attempt to make religion scientific. Such reports are like the attempt of science to explain or refute religious beliefs. Science has its ways of proving things, and religion has its ways, and those ways are not the same.
I do understand and know people who've experienced hope and catharsis by going to mediums. My dear friend, Father Tom Hartman, believes that a certain psychic he knows is real, and we used to argue about it on the way to have pizza and beer. Thank God the pizza and beer ended our wrangling.
Once, to appease Tommy and out of curiosity, I went with him to the psychic he liked. That night, the room was filled with about 25 people, mostly Italian-American Catholics. The psychic waved his hand over a piece of paper, closed his eyes and said, "Someone named Maria is coming through to me. Does anyone know a person named Maria who has died?" Twenty-five hands shot up immediately. Tommy looked with satisfaction at me and asked, "So now do you see?" I bit my tongue so as not to laugh and said, "Yes, Tommy. Now I see." May God comfort all the mourners among us in ways that are true, enduring and filled with real hope and honest belief.