Inexplicable events can be both real and filtered through imagination

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Allen Turner. (2016). Science may scoff, but Rice professor and best-selling author believe the “inexplicable” does occur. Religion could influence interpretation, types of experiences, pair suggests. Houston Chronicle.

Some strange things seemingly have been happening in this world.

In Old Testament time, Ezekiel saw wheels in the sky; Moses, a speaking, burning bush. In great-granddaddy’s day, Mark Twain saw his brother’s corpse in a dream, then, weeks later, came face-to-face with his brother’s body in a scene identical to the nocturnal vision. Today, told-as-true stories of visits from space aliens or the dead fill television and the Internet.

Godly miracles, products of over-active imaginations or outright fraud, credulity-straining tales have walked with mankind since the first humans stirred from caves.

Science, said Rice University’s Jeffrey Kripal, quickly dismisses such accounts. But what if empirically based science simply is missing the point? What if the stories are based on something that defies test-tube discipline?

Now, Kripal, Rice’s J. Newton Rayzor professor of religion, joins Texas-born author Whitley Strieber in exploring alternative ways of interpreting seeming inexplicable events in The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, published by Penguin Random House.

  • Kripal is author of six previous books, including Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred and Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics and the Paranormal.
  • Strieber is a bestselling author of 35 books, including horror novels The Wolfen and The Hunger, and of Communion, a 1987 nonfiction account of the author’s avowed encounters with trolls and insect-faced humanoids.

“I think they happen all the time,” Kripal said of reported strange events. “How they’re interpreted is the million-dollar question … We have to be very humble about what we can see and understand from our very particular cultures and languages and belief systems … What we think about the cosmos now is not what we will think 100 years from now.”

‘Not a kook’

What if the stories are based on something that defies test-tube discipline?

The Kripal-Strieber collaboration features chapter-length first-person accounts by Strieber interspersed with Kripal’s academic analysis. Bluntly stated, Kripal’s conclusion is that 70-year-old Strieber is “not a kook.”

Strieber’s emergence as poster boy for encounters with space aliens — Strieber himself doesn’t contend his visitors were from outer space — began in December 1985 as he was taken from his Hudson Valley cabin by a group made up of trolls, giant insects and an old, deceased friend. In subsequent incidents, Strieber encountered a ravishing unearthly lover, little blue men and, a frightening pair of visitors who, he said, inserted a metal object in his ear. No one was more astounded by the events than Strieber, who had been educated at San Antonio Catholic schools before obtaining degrees from the University of Texas and the London School of Film Technique. “I went through a full gamut of different tests and discussions with my doctor,” he said. “There wasn’t anything organically wrong with my brain; there wasn’t anything psychology could explain.”

Communion and its sequels brought Strieber thousands of letters from readers who claimed that they, too, had experienced similar events. Strieber said he plans to donate the letters to Rice University this month. To Kripal, Strieber’s books seemed to reflect a man’s efforts to make sense of strange occurrences that may have been religious in nature.

Critical response to the Streiber’s books hasn’t universally been favorable. Once, a Los Angeles Times book editor shuffled a best-selling Strieber non-fiction work to the fiction list. Robert Sheaffer, longtime columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, dismissed Strieber’s claims as “implausibility upon implausibility upon implausibility.” “The astonishing things he writes — there’s no evidence for any of this stuff,” Sheaffer said. “He’s a masterful storyteller.”

“They are way out there – these sorts of experiences strain credulity if we interpret them literally,” Kripal said.

“We’re trying to say that an experience can both be real and filtered through the imagination. We’re trying to plead for both and not an either-or situation. An experience can be symbolic and be an experience that’s very, very real…

The mind of human spirit is vastly more complex and mysterious than we think.”


At issue, Kripal said, is the nature of consciousness.

“The standard, conventional view is that consciousness is brain processes and nothing more,” he said. “But there’s another model you encounter in religious literature, and that says the brain doesn’t produce consciousness, it reduces it. It acts like a radio receiver. Consciousness is cosmic, and the body and mind are set up to filter it.” In times of severe illness or trauma, he suggested, the filter might crack, allowing entrance of the strange.

“Little blue men might be fairly unique to a culture and time,” Kripal said, “but small humanoids are everywhere throughout religious literature…That doesn’t mean that there are actual little blue trolls running around, but that also doesn’t mean Whitley’s experience is anecdotal. They fit into a pattern that we see throughout history. What it means I don’t claim to know. But it’s not unique to him. It’s a common human experience, and that means he’s not making it up. It sounds extravagant in our culture, but it wouldn’t have seemed so 300 years ago. It would have seemed normal.”

Kripal said it is problematic to interpret ancient reports through the prism of modern knowledge – identifying Ezekial’s flying wheels as spaceships, for instance – and to interpret contemporary episodes through archaic knowledge. Equally misguided, he said, is the science community’s dismissal of reported paranormal incidents as “anecdotal.” To assess the significance of such reported incidents through empirical science is analogous to denying the existence of zebras after searching for them only at the North Pole, he argued.

“I make a distinction between skeptics and debunkers,” he said. “Skepticism has a noble history going back to ancient Greece. Skeptics are skeptical of everything.

Scientific materialism is not skeptical of scientific material. It assumes it. It’s ideology … Scientific materialism can explain everything but us. It cannot explain consciousness.”
‘How can it be both?’

Strieber admitted that he, too, is puzzled by much of what he said he experienced. But, he said, he believes that at least some of the phenomena were physical. “It’s both nightmare and physical experience at the same time,” he said. “It’s interesting and strange. How can it be both?” Illustrating the point, he said, was an encounter he had with a pair of non-human entities who entered his house without triggering its burglar alarm to insert a small metal object in his ear. “There was no scar, there was just a lump, a sore,” he said. “They didn’t open me up. So how did they do it?”

Strieber said he consulted a physician, but the doctor was unable to remove the “implant.” “He did pull out a little piece of it, a metal base with cillia. They moved. A pathologist saw it under a microscope.”

Precognition – the knowing of things before they happen – is another in the array of strange occurrences Kripal has pondered.

A religious experience

Mark Twain, he noted, experienced a disturbing dream in June 1858 while he and his brother, Henry, both riverboat workers, were in port at St. Louis. In the dream, which Twain later recounted in a magazine article, the humorist saw his brother lying in a coffin. “The dream was so vivid, so like reality, that it deceived me and I thought it was real,” Twain wrote. In the dream, Twain’s brother wore one of the author’s suits; a bouquet of white flowers with a single red blossom at its center rested on the dead man’s chest. A few weeks later, Twain’s brother fatally was injured in a steamboat accident. “When I came back and entered the dead-room,” Twain wrote, “Henry lay in that open case, and he was dressed in a suit of my clothing. He had borrowed it without my knowledge during our last sojourn in St. Louis.” All the details of the real-life scene matched the dream, except for the flowers. Then, as the author watched, an elderly woman placed a bouquet of white roses on corpse’s chest. In the center was a red bloom.

“What dead loved ones who sometimes show up in these alien abduction events suggest to me,” Kripal said, “is that these events aren’t about spaceships and invasions. This is what we call ‘religion.’ This is about the soul. This is about death. This is about immortality.”

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