May 22, 2012

Spirit Travel or Astral Projection?

Read/Post Comments (5)

A number of odd statements are found in First Corinthians 5:1-5. Paul addresses a case of immorality in the Corinthian community: a man is cohabiting with his father’s wife and the Corinthians are tolerating the situation. Paul considers their tolerance an egregious scandal! Readers are given no further information about the persons involved, but I note that Paul did not say that the lady was the man’s mother—so likely she was a step mother. Paul urges the community to expel the man!

     He says: “For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as present [not “as if present”] I have already pronounced judgment” (5:3; compare Colossians 2:5, a similar statement that does not create the same difficulties). Paul further directs that when the community is assembled “and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus,” the man should be delivered “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that his spirit may be saved…” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5). This latter statement clearly looks dualistic—i.e., human beings are comprised of a separate spirit/soul inhabiting a physical body—so the Greeks thought. Conventional thinking, however, is that Paul thought of humans as unified living beings (Genesis 2:7)—so the Hebrews thought.

     How might Paul have conceived of his own spirit “being present” although his body was absent? He says it twice (5:4). The temptation is to think that Paul has just been careless in his statement, and he meant to say something like: when you assemble and think like me about this situation (i.e., in this way I am psychologically present in spirit), you will pass judgment on this fellow (as I have already done), and deliver him over to Satan (meaning put him out of the community?—an odd way of putting it!). The New International Version of the Bible and Today’s English Version ignore the difficulty posed by the Greek text, and make Paul’s statement completely innocuous: “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit, and have already passed judgment . . . just as if I were present.”

     One commentary (Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 205), however, recognizes the oddity of the Greek text and thinks Paul’s presence in spirit has to do with unity in the Spirit: i.e., when the community is assembled the Holy Spirit is present—and “for Paul that means that he too is present among them by that same Spirit” (which is still an odd idea). Fee cautions his readers, however: “We must nonetheless not try to make Paul think or talk like us.” An excellent caveat! No one really knows what Paul thought. Paul’s statement on its surface actually sounds like some kind of “spirit travel.”

     Spirit travel is attested in antiquity and Paul clearly refers to it in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4: “I know a person . . . who was caught up into the third heaven (“three heavens”?—how odd!). Heavenly journeys are a common feature of ancient texts (see James Tabor, “Heaven, Ascent to,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 3.91-94). Here are a few references to the odd idea of “spirit travel” in Biblical texts. John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10; 4:1-2), and he says: an angel “carried me away in the Spirit” (17:3; 21:10). Ezekiel also is carried away by the Spirit (Ezekiel 2:12-15; 8:3; 11:24-25; 37:1; 40:2). After the baptism of the Eunuch, the Spirit caught up Philip (physically?) and apparently took him to Azotus (Acts 8:39-40); perhaps “spirit travel” also plays a part in 1 Kings 18:12. Jesus told a story about a person inhabited by an “unclean spirit” that goes out of him/her and wanders in desert places, and later returns to the body (Matthew 12:43-45; Luke 11:24-26).

     These observations on 1 Corinthians 5 have taken an odd turn, evoking such ideas as astral projection, shamanism, and out of body experiences. I am basically very skeptical about such things, although a great deal has been written about them. It is difficult to know what to make of Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 5:3-4. Is he thinking of an ecstatic experience, like John of the Apocalypse, or perhaps more substantively like Ezekiel—and thus Paul thought he could be present with the Corinthians when he was in an ecstatic state? Or is he thinking of a divided spirit, part of which travels and part of which inhabits his body (I assume that the body needs its spirit/soul force to remain alive). But if part of one’s spirit travels, neither the spirit particle in transit nor the deficient part left behind can be thought of as an individual’s complete spirit; a divided spirit is something other than the usual condition of one’s spirit at rest in the body, it seems to me. Perhaps Paul is thinking of a “spirit twin” that could be projected at will?

     This passage requires a way of thinking foreign to a post-Enlightenment world (some would argue it requires spiritual discernment—compare 1 Corinthians 2:14), and it is little wonder that 21st century folk who are heirs of the Enlightenment (the 18th century rise of critical thought) would have difficulty with the odd ideas in it.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:07am

Hey Lee, glad you recognize the school.
I am not making a deductive argument, I am explaining some of the rationale for belief in the supernatural. Personal experience, the testimony of others, and the belief of others cannot be lumped into the same category. So let me give a little more detail. I take my personal experiences to be the most convincing to me, but probably not convincing at all to a skeptic. I would never try to convince someone of the supernatural based on what I have experienced, but my experiences do provide me with a sense of surety that nothing else is capable of producing. Since I have my own experiences, I am more inclined to believe other people when they talk of similar things. One thing is for certain, many who claim supernatural experiences are not lying, as indicated by the discernment of the spirit. It is intuitively obvious that many have had experiences which they genuinely believe to be supernatural. There are only two options here, either they are all wrong, or some of them are right. Since I think I am right about my experiences being supernatural, it is easier for me to accept that others have had similar experiences. It does come down to opinion, it would be foolish to claim otherwise. However, it is much different than widespread belief in erroneous scientific beliefs, like a flat earth. One is a firsthand experience that is present in the conscious, the other is just majority opinion based on hearsay. And that goes for belief in the supernatural. It really does not matter how many people believe in the supernatural, there either is only the natural realm or there is more. But I do not think, since belief in the supernatural often comes from personal experience, that we can ignore the uniformity of belief throughout different cultures. The point is, that majority opinion is not a good way to argue for anything, but if the supernatural does exist and can be experienced, we would expect to find belief in the supernatural to be abundant. So, my firsthand experience comes first, then the notable similarities between mine and others', and then the fact that every culture has these claims simply serves to confirm what I already believe. These all make sense based on the truth of the supernatural. And arguably make more sense than if the supernatural did not exist, and could not be experienced.

How can we become aware of the supernatural besides personal experiences? If experience is not evidence, then what would you consider evidence? If something exists which is above the natural realm, and is not by our limited senses perceived, then the only way we can know about it is if we experience something that cannot be explained by natural phenomena. This does not imply the magical, and should not be equated with imaginary. The supernatural is simply that which exists which is not part of the physical universe.

One way that we all experience the supernatural, every day, is in our own consciousnesses. We are literally a spirit living inside of a monkey's body. This I can prove based on deductive logic. Since free will exists in humans, and free will cannot be produced by the purely natural, we must therefore be able to have free will because we are literally supernatural entities. So unless you actually think that you don't have free will, which many atheists argue, then you necessarily believe that you are that which cannot be explained by natural means, and therefore supernatural. And, I ask, what is so strange about that? It is very easy to believe that I have free will, and very easy to believe that I am therefore more than matter.
Posted by Nathan Bailey on 2/26/2013 at 11:21am

Hi Nathan:
Florida College, wow, I grew up just a mile or two from there, and my mother attended there for a couple of years. I thought I'd reply to your comment that "[b]ased on personal experiences and the testimony of every culture to ever exist on earth, I think it is safe to believe in the supernatural." I think it's important to note that, just because most everyone seems to believe X, that doesn't mean that X is true. For example, most people used to believe that Planet Earth was at the center of the Universe and was flat, but they were completely wrong in both cases.

You also mentioned personal testimony. The problem with this is that anecdotes don't make evidence. Whenever an amazing claim is made, a high level of evidence is necessary to back it up ("So and so said so" just doesn't cut it). Look for corroboration from multiple first-hand sources as well as unbiased (and, if possible, even hostile) ones. Otherwise, people can get away with saying just about anything. Also, if the alleged events really cannot be explained by natural means, then we should see if they can be duplicated and under what conditions this can be done.

So far, to my knowledge, no reliable data exists to support the existence of the supernatural. Does this mean it doesn't exist or that all efforts to study it should cease? No. But I think it does mean we shouldn't make any hasty assumptions about it. Rather, we should be very cautious about the level of confidence we place in supernatural claims.

All the best in your studies!
Posted by Lee Penya on 2/23/2013 at 4:55pm

Well, Professor Hedrick, I doubt whether you or anyone reading this will feel the urge to engage me in battle, so I feel comfortable saying that I go to Florida College. It is a private college run by the Church of Christ, which is the Christian church that I attended from birth. But I differ quite considerably in doctrine from my good friends in the Church of Christ.
Hope all goes well with your ice storm, it's a toasty swampland here in Florida.
As for my views on the spirit, I must say that I'm not sure exactly what is true. I don't necessarily believe in a 'spirit realm' that is mysteriously placed between God and the universe of matter. But I think that spirits may be able to move through the world of matter, or there may be other realms that exist in some sense that is similar to the way our material universe exists. I really don't know how anyone can decide for sure about this topic. But based on personal experiences and the testimony of every culture to ever exist on earth, I think it is safe to believe in the supernatural, even if it is hard to nail down a definition.
I view a living body and a decaying body as basically the same from a biochemical perspective. The body is in a constant state of decay and regrowth until something goes unalterably wrong and the body can no longer repair itself. Maybe there is a lifeforce that animates all of life, but I don't know exactly what that would look like. The bacteria that grows in a petri dish would have to also possess this life force, presumably. So as the bacteria draws in nutrients and clones itself, when does the life force enter into the matter that is transformed from the nonliving agar into newly living bacteria? I don't know if animals and other biological organisms possess spirits, but I think it is easy to argue that human beings do. Our free will, consciousness, and self-awareness bespeak a nonmaterial aspect to our psyches. I understnad this nonmaterial aspect to be the bare minimum definition for my spirit. The spirit, if it exists, must be able to effect and control our material body without being biochemically attached to it. So if the spirit leaves the body to travel through a spiritual realm, or this universe, I don't think that means our body would die. The biochemical processes that keep our body alive would not cease just because our spirit is absent.
Much of this is conjecture. And hypothetical built on conjecture. Of course I could give some more detail to explain why I believe this way, but it will still be rather hard to prove that my beliefs are patently more plausible than competing theories. But I think my beliefs reasonable, and I continue to think through these things, and I welcome your input.
Posted by Nathan Bailey on 2/22/2013 at 12:22pm
Hi Nathan,
We are out of the deep freeze and the sun is shining, although it is a bit cold outside. Monday we have more snow coming in, or so we are told. Thanks for replying and stating your position so well. I am afraid that we will simply have to disagree, you and I. When it comes to religion (broadly conceived) I try to live by three guidelines: 1. I must be allowed to make up my own mind about things (no confessions please); 2. To never deceive myself; 3. I will not affirm anything I find to be patently untrue. In this case following my first guideline I find Paul’s idea of transmigrating spirits to be incredible, lacking in both concrete evidence and simple credibility—meaning such an idea violates my number 2 and 3 guidelines. Whereas you are exercising your prerogative (under my first guideline) to make up your own mind. Bravo! As you said who can be certain in these matters (lacking concrete evidence and all). So we have to go with what seems best to us.
Stay in touch.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 2/23/2013 at 11:28am

The animal body does not require a spirit to live. When one astrally projects, their spirit literally leaves their body and can travel in the astral plane, as well as through the physical world. Both require the proper practice and and/or training.

I am currently taking a college course on 1 Corinthians and I raised this issue about astral projection in class. My professor hadn't really heard this take before, but he does not know how to fully refute it. He takes a non-literal interpretation, like the psychological one you wrote about. But, it seems that a clear reading of the text indicates that Paul at least thought he could travel the earth with his spirit. Many modern magicians claim this ability; it shouldn't be hard to believe that an Apostle claimed as much. And based on the belief that we are a spirit that operates within an animal's body, is it very hard to believe that we can use other modes of transportation?
Posted by Nathan Bailey on 2/18/2013 at 8:38pm

Good Morning Nathan!
We are in the middle of an ice storm here in Southwest Missouri—and the worst is yet to come. I find your comment that the body does not need the spirit to live to be odd. It seems self-evident to me that the body must have what I would for the purpose of this discussion call “a principle of animation”—that life force (whatever it is) separating the two main phases of the body into its two states: an animated living being and decaying flesh. I realize that this puts me more in the ancient Hebrew camp than the Greek. I have found no convincing evidence that human beings are comprised of body/flesh and spirit/soul—two (maybe three) entities, one within the other so that body is a shell and what we call the spirit/soul inhabits the shell. Perhaps you have found such evidence that convinces you. Here is my question then: do you distinguish between a “spirit,” soul, or life force? You must, I think, because you say that the body does not need the spirit to live. From my perspective there is no spirit world, so the nebulous (if I can use that word) spirit space between God (the originating principle of the universe) and the natural world does not exist (if that is the proper word). So Paul could not perform at will such a thing as astral travel.
Would you mind sharing the type of school that you are taking the Bible course in? That is: is it a state supported institution, or a private institution, and if private does it have religious connections? Just curious.

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 2/21/2013 at 9:11am

Clear & succinct comment on the meaning of Paul’s words, Prof. Hedrick. I would agree that “spirit travel’ or “astral projection” are legitimate esoteric concepts to be brought up and considered in determining Paul’s meaning, but I wouldn’t dismiss the NIV or TEV translations as “innocuous,” since they fall within the lexical range of the Greek words Paul utilizes. Indeed as a spiritual leader of the Corinthian church, who had been active in preaching and teaching among its members, Paul may have meant no more than the Corinthians should remember his viewpoint or perhaps, doctrine, on ‘sexual immorality’ and extrapolating to new situations such as a son sleeping with his stepmother, apply the underlying moral principle. One’s pneuma may be manifested in another or in a community through memory and this would be enhanced when the dunamis of the Lord Jesus is present. Our memories are part of our psyches (mind or soul) and you yourself, Prof. Hedrick, mention the closeness of spirit and soul in Greek thought. Anyway, I like the overall tone of your post here, erudite yet experimental, & I want to let you know that I plan to purchase your commentary on GTh, one of my favorite writings from the ancient Mediterranean world. To your list of Biblical incidents of spirit travel may be added the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Mt. 4 and par.), which, curiously, also involves the Devil or Satan, who figures in the passage from 1 Corinthians we are discussing as well. There is, in truth, much that is odd in the Bible & in religion generally & I’m glad you’re exploring this in your blog. As there are big mysteries in the larger world of which we’re a part, I, for one, would not want to exclude religion or spirituality from the search for answers. Thanks Prof. Hedrick!
Posted by Paul Rizzuto on 5/30/2012 at 4:08pm
Hi Paul,
Thanks for your comments, and I quite agree that words are slippery things that take on a range of nuances depending on the context and the writer and the reader—or put another way, words have a semantic range of use. But in this case TEV and NIV have rendered a problematic passage into a modern idiom that completely removes any offense (what I Intended by “innocuous”) for the modern reader from Paul’s statement about “my spirit being present.” In other words these translations have reduced the semantic range of the words in the passage. The translators of TEV and NIV found enough semantic range in the Greek text for them to translate the passage as they did. But readers of their modern rendition of the Greek text scarcely find enough range in their translations to suggest “spirit travel” or “astral projection.” You only get the potential for that resonance by reading the Greek text. Translators should protect the text’s ancient strangeness.
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 5/31/2012 at 3:05pm