Are You Fey?

SeeingFairies‘Tis is the time of year that one might make inquiry into elves and the wee folk without being thought too strange. Santa has his cadre of mythic diminutive helpers and even the shepherds have their angels. The two, it seems, are not unrelated. Marjorie T. Johnson’s Seeing Fairies is, in many respects, a charming book. Compiled by the author during a lifetime of corresponding with people who claim to have seen fairies, elves, pixies, sprites, brownies, gnomes, and even angels, the stories—as parsimonious as any sermon—do create an aura of mystery. It is clear that Johnson believed (the book is posthumous) sincerely in the unseen world. As the preface makes clear, she was influenced by Theosophy, and the majority of the material dates from the 1950s and earlier. There is an almost childlike credulousness to the accounts, with Johnson not questioning psychic dreams or astral projection, placing them side-by-side with eyewitness accounts. This is a good example of what an editor might have done for the book.

Many people assume a doctorate in the humanities is a soft thing—pliable in a way that the hard sciences are not. The point of advanced study, however, is to ingrain habits of critical thinking. Nothing is taken at face value. For those of us who study folklore’s first cousin, religion, the task is often to set aside belief in the light of evidence. What can we know about the unknowable? Of course, psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists are now supposed to be better equipped to answer religious questions. Religion, after all, is something people think and do, and what can we really learn from studying it per se? We need an interpretative device—an hermeneutic filter (or pneumatic hammer)—to guide us toward the reality of the thing. And yet science itself is based on observation. Accounting for what our senses reveal about the world around us.

Some people, it is clear, find the world around them filled with wee people. Recently a major road construction was halted in Iceland out of fear of disturbing the elfin habitat. And Icelanders are some of the most literate people on the planet. Johnson’s accounts (some clearly hard to swallow) range across the earth, but center in the British Isles and Celtic lands. Perhaps the light is somewhat different there. Perhaps nearing the North Pole things really do change. What becomes clear from Seeing Fairies is that some highly credible and educated people see, from time to time, what they allow their eyes to see. Believing is, after all, seeing. Johnson ends her book with a chapter on angels, beings she clearly views in continuity with fairies. The difference is that the monotheistic religions allow for, and perhaps even demand, angels. When they become travel-sized, however, the only evidence is that of those with very keen eyesight.

Think Again

Within a few blocks of my office is Midtown are at least three temples related to the New Thought movement. New Thought has been variously interpreted, but generally it is considered a religious movement, challenging, as it does, the very perceptions of reality itself. New Thought is usually traced back to Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a nineteenth century American philosopher and inventor. A watchmaker by trade, Quimby came to believe that mind had ultimate reality and New Thought opined that the divine is true human selfhood, and what we call God is ubiquitous. One of the corollaries of this outlook is that the mind is capable of healing the body. A woman who was a patient of Quimby took his ideas and developed them further. Mary Baker Eddy would eventually found the Christian Science movement. Although the Mother Church of Christian Science is in Boston (and is a somewhat imposing building), over on East 43rd Street in New York stands the First Church of Christ, Scientist.

New Thought was noteworthy in that many of the leaders of the movement were women. Unburdened from traditional Judeo-Christi-Islamic ideas of paternal divinity, New Thought had no use for male-centeredness. One of the early leaders of the movement was Emma Curtis Hopkins. Originally a disciple of Mary Baker Eddy, Hopkins split off from Christian Science and began to organize the New Thought movement. One of her followers was Ernest Holmes, the founder of Religious Science. While based in Los Angeles, Religious Science had roots in New York where Holmes spent some of his younger years. Holmes would eventually write The Science of Mind and his followers would become recognized as another New Thought “church.” While on a lunchtime errand I came across the Religious Science center on East 58th Street, just a few blocks from its kin down by Grand Central.

Theosophy is probably better classified as an esoteric religion rather than New Thought. What ties them together is their beginnings in the late nineteenth century in the Northeast. Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott began meeting in New York City and the movement grew out of their mutual interest in the religions of antiquity and the far east. The Theosophical Society moved its headquarters to India with a main US office in Wheaton, Illinois. Nestled between the Church of Christ, Scientist and Religious Science, an office of The Theosophical Society sits quietly on East 53rd Street.

One brief lunch hour will take you past all three. These New Religious Movements attest to the vitality of religious thought. Some of them continue to try to combine science with the world of the mysterious, spiritual universe in which we find ourselves. The obituary for religion was written long ago, but a stroll through Midtown on lunch hour will show it was certainly premature.

Home Grown

In a seedier neighborhood of Midtown stands a five-story apartment building that would be easily overlooked on an ordinary day. Back in the late nineteenth century an investigator of the Lincoln assassination, and lawyer, by the name of Henry Steel Olcott began to meet in this apartment with a Russian mystic who came to be known as Madame Blavatsky. Their base of operations was call the Lamasery. The “religion” that resulted from their collaboration came to be known as Theosophy.

I remember distinctly when I first learned of Theosophy. I was attending an academic conference and as I passed along the bookstalls I noticed the Theosophical Society with their table of wares. A newly minted doctor of philosophy, a nagging worry sprung up in my head: was this a form of philosophical thinking that I should’ve learned about? Had I somehow forgotten lessons on Theosophy? Should I rush back to the library (this was before the Internet, let alone Wikipedia) and find out what Theosophy was? Well, I did make the effort and soon learned that it was considered an occult group and therefore I need not concern myself any more.

What I hadn’t fully realized is that although Theosophy did indeed integrate some elements of the Spiritualist movement, it was in many ways America’s introduction to Buddhism and Hinduism. America in the nineteenth century had some experience of Islam, but generally the only religions that were widely recognized were Christianity and Judaism. Anything else sounded occultish and vaguely heathen. Olcott and Blavatsky raised awareness that religions elsewhere in the world did not necessarily conform to American tastes. There was more to religious belief than met the eye.

Theosophy never made it big in the New World, but it continues to survive to this day. America has become the premier place for new religions to emerge. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a religion like Mormonism—a distinctly American belief system—gaining an infant foothold anywhere else in the world. Although largely identifying ourselves amorphously as “Christian,” Americans are great religious experimenters. And Theosophy was a faith that grew out of experimental ideas in New York City with tendrils stretching all the way to India and China. The movement even bestowed upon Gandhi his famous epithet of Mahatma. The words inscribed on his Serbian monument would serve us all well to memorize: “non-violence is the essence of all religions.”

Church of Siliconism

Some of us have been dragged into the electronic age kicking and screaming. Our apartment at home is full of books, and they are made of paper, not plastic. In college, some of my friends and I vowed we would never use computers—harbingers of a cold, new age. It was a vow I kept until working on my doctorate (pretty much). Despite keeping this blog, I really have very little native intelligence about the world of circuit-board, integrated circuit, and chip. I would probably be the last person to have thought to ask for an iPhone—I frequently forget to take my cell phone with me, and when I do, I sometimes neglect to turn it on. So I was stunned to find an iPhone with my name on it yesterday. I looked at it like an alien baby, wondering what it might eat. As the day wore on, however, I started to see some of what it might offer.

Siri, the software personal assistant for iOS, responds in a friendly voice to questions asked. “She” (and you can’t help personifying her) is like a personal portal to the mind of the Internet. You want a pizza? Siri knows the location of all the places in your neighborhood that deliver. You wonder what the most recent nation in the world is? Siri will look that up for you. (South Sudan, as of yesterday, according to her sources.) My brother-in-law, intrepid with electronics, and knowing my background, asked Siri about God. She replied, “Humans believe in spiritualism. I believe in siliconism.” Someone at Apple clearly has a sense of humor, but the more I began to parse this statement, the more I realized Siri could use a personal assistant in the religion field.

Spiritualism is not the same as spirituality; the former is the belief in ghosts and the religions that accompany that belief, such as Theosophy. Clearly in an American market, any product that denied belief in God, even by implication, would become the product of a witchhunt. The sad image of heaps of iPhones being melted as leering evangelicals look on is disturbing but unfortunately easy to conjure. Best to program Siri to deflect any potential ire with humor. The second component of her pithy reply is siliconism. As a religion, it is clearly underway all ready. Who reading this blog can imagine life without electronic media? Be honest! What does a computer believe? Do androids dream of electric sheep? Does Siri say her prayers as she’s being shut down for the night? What does it mean to believe? So now I have an iPhone. The day before yesterday I couldn’t find my app with both hands. Now I have a personal religion consultant. I suspect I’ll be starting a new religion by the end of the day—the First Church of Christ, Programmer. Its headquarters will be wherever a true believer is located at the moment, as long as s/he has an iPhone. Blackberry users will, of course, be considered heretics.