This is Faith in Play #33: Psionics, for August 2020.
About eighteen years ago, in July 2002, I published Faith and Gaming: Mind Powers, and thought I had said everything that needed to be said on the subject of psionic powers in fiction and games. It was republished fourteen years later on our refurbished reformatted website, August of 2016.
I could not have foreseen that seventeen years after it was originally written, November 2019, the republished copy would be discovered by someone who wanted to discuss it in enough detail that it has expanded to eighty comments, fewer than half of them contributed by our webmaster and me, filled with questions and links and references attempting to determine whether these “powers” were actually part of the “occult” practices condemned in Deuteronomy 18. Many Christians think so; for reasons covered in that article, I do not. However, the morass of commentary there obscures the critical points, and so I have returned to address the question again.
The issue we addressed was whether, within a fictional setting, it might be plausible to include characters who for one reason or another had developed “natural” mental abilities beyond those common to humans today—the mutant Jean Grey, for example. We demonstrated that in fact modern humans had mental abilities that were completely unknown less than two millennia ago, and that while it could not be said that we therefore would have greater powers in the future, it just as certainly could not be said that we would not. There was no harm in imagining such naturally developed mental abilities in fictional characters.
But our commenter could not get past arguments by other Christians to the effect that these powers were necessarily “occult,” and it would be sinful to use them or to suggest their use.
That attitude is understandable but actually foolishly reactionary. In the less than two centuries during which there has been any effort at “scientific study” of the idea, many of the subjects being studied claimed to be mediums with the ability to speak with the dead. That practice—an ancient middle east religious practice—is condemned in Deuteronomy, because all religious practices of the nations were condemned including trimming beards and wearing tattoos. Whether it was possible to do that then is hotly debated, but I think we can agree that God does not want us seeking answers from other spirits, whether gods, demons, or the departed; He wants us seeking Him.
However, since those who claimed to have psychic abilities claimed to have connections to spirits, Christians were right to say that if their claims were true they were adherents to false religions, regardless of their jargon. And since these claims were popular, the belief of the critics became that the powers were not mental but spiritual, demonic gifts of some sort.
Critical to this, though, is the fact that in over a hundred fifty years not one shred of credible evidence has been demonstrated to support the claim that any of these psychic or psionic abilities exist. The mediums and psychics and spoonbenders have all been shown to be frauds. Thus we have the argument that if these abilities are real in people who contact other spirits they must be demonic abilities, undermined by the complication that the abilities have never been shown to be real.
So we certainly agree with our Christian brothers that abilities obtained by contacting spirits other than God are satanic. That simply is not what we are talking about in this discussion. Rather, we are raising the possibility that natural human abilities could expand over time to include powers which to us today seem magical—as magical as it would have seemed to Augustine that we can read this article without pronouncing each word aloud (see previous article). We don’t say that the mind will ever develop telepathy or telekinesis or psychic healing—only that if it did so, that would be a natural mental ability, not a demonic spirit power. And since our interests are not in the reality of a thousand years in our future (which might never come) but in what is appropriate to explore in fiction, we maintain our position that powers described in our stories and games as specifically mental abilities are not magical and not demonic and perfectly reasonable to include.
I do hope this puts the question to rest, at least for another decade.