by Michael E. Tymn via e-mail|
The Rev. Dr. Harry L. Serio is not the stereotypical Christian minister. The pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ in Kutztown, PA, Serio takes a liberal view of Scripture and is very much interested in paranormal phenomena. His doctoral work at Lancaster Theological Seminary was in the field of Christian mysticism.
Serio did research on the Royal Tomb of Gordium (Anatolia), studied archaeology in Italy, Greece, and Turkey, and participated in two excavations in Israel. He has also been recognized for his use of the visual and performing arts as a means of spiritual expression and meditation. He was elected president of the Academy of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies, Inc. during June.
How do members of your church and your Christian colleagues react to your interest in the occult? If "occult" is a "dirty" word, should we better call it the supernatural or the paranormal?
“As we know, words are signs that point to meanings beyond themselves. One word by itself is imprecise, so we must always ask a person what is meant by the choice of a particular word. ‘Occult’ has a lot of negative baggage. Its original meaning was ‘secret’ or ‘hidden,’ and therefore ‘beyond our comprehension.’ However, its common usage implies association with demonic forces. Therefore, I have chosen not to use it. My congregation and colleagues are aware of my interest in ‘mysticism,’ the direct awareness of ultimate reality. Mystics, in seeking this union with God, often experienced what we would call paranormal phenomena. I even hesitate to use the term ‘supernatural,’ since any event that occurs or is perceived in the natural world is not beyond it, but part of it. ‘Paranormal’ is the better word, since, even though its connotation is beyond the normal, its original definition is alongside normal experience.
“Those who know me, know that my interest in paranormal events is not only scientific, but also a search for meaning or relevance. It is interesting to note that those who witnessed the miracles of Jesus didn't ask how he did them, but rather, what did it mean that he was able to perform these apparent contradictions of nature.
“While many of my colleagues have referred parishioners to me to perform exorcisms or counsel them on paranormal events which they have experienced, this has not been a primary focus of my ministry and therefore has not been an issue of concern.”
Have your studies of paranormal phenomena changed your understanding or appreciation of the Bible?
“The Old Testament is a collection of myths and legends from many sources, along with laws and precepts designed to solidify and establish the Hebrew culture. From this tribal perspective the Hebrew people perceived of a nationalistic God who chose them above all others, who waged war on their behalf, and even effected the slaughter of innocent children. We no longer worship a sadistic God who sanctions perjury, prostitution, slavery, and many other reprehensible practices that can be found in scripture.
“Recognizing that the Bible is a record of how a particular people perceived God interacting in their history, one must also apply that same hermeneutical principle to the interpretation of paranormal events which should not be taken literally, but understood in the context of how those descriptions are used. We cannot examine paranormal phenomena in the Bible empirically, nor were they intended to be. They are to be understood metaphorically as signs that point beyond themselves.”
Fundamentalist Christians often point to Lev. 20:6 and 20:27 as well as Deuteronomy 18:12-13 as reasons to steer clear of spirit communication. How can these Old Testament passages be reconciled with 1 John 4:1 or 1 Corinthians 12:10, which tell us we should test the spirits and be discerning of them?
“Fundamentalists pick and choose which portions of scripture they want to use to support their particular religious practices. If they adhered strictly to biblical injunctions, they would stone their disobedient children and put to death anyone who worked on the Sabbath, and refrain from eating pork and shellfish. The same passage that prohibits consultation with wizards and witchcraft, also dictates that you can't eat rare meat or get a haircut.
“Spirit communication was prohibited in order to prevent persons from receiving ‘unauthorized’ direction and to preserve the monopoly of priests and prophets to interpret the will of God. All ancient civilizations had their professional augurs, sibyls, and priests who had lucrative practices divining the future and giving advice, and who sought to eliminate the competition. Many of the Israelite kings, including Saul, went outside their culture to consult with Canaanitic mediums. The Deuteronomic code, which was a later revision and reinterpretation of Mosaic laws, sought to centralize worship in one place and eliminate local shrines and practices of the indigenous Canaanite people.
“The apostle Paul argued for discernment in recognizing legitimate direction from spirits, to see if they are of God, that is, if the Holy Spirit is within them. Just because persons are on the other side of this life doesn’t necessarily mean that they can offer good advice. Some can be just as stupid and immoral as those who are living in this dimension of being.”
How do you interpret Revelation 22:18-21 which suggests, according to many Christians, that the book on truth is closed? If that is the case, why test the spirits and discern what they have to say? Isn't there a conflict there?
“In an age without copyright laws, this is the best that the prophet John could do. There was a similar injunction in Deuteronomy 4:2 against tampering with what has been written. Since the canon of the Bible was not yet formalized, John could only be speaking about his apocalypse and not the entire Bible. George Rawson, 150 years ago, wrote a hymn based on the final words of the pilgrim leader, John Robinson, before the departure to the New World:
We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind --
By notions of our day and sect -- crude partial and confined
No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred
For God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word.
“God is still speaking to us, and in every age we need to discern and apply our understanding of what that means. Truth is a diamond of many facets through which we look, and therefore our interpretation is constantly evolving.”
As I see it, the biggest difference between orthodox Christianity and the teachings of spirit since the New Testament relate to the Afterlife. Except for the purgatory of Catholicism, Christianity offers us a humdrum heaven or horrific hell, while modern revelation – if we can call it that – suggests an evolution of spirit through many realms. What are your thoughts on that?
“Our theological concepts continue to evolve and change. The Old Testament concept of sheol was that of a warehouse of nonconscious souls underneath the earth characterized by darkness, silence and joylessness, similar to the Greek concept of Hades. It was where one was unaware of the presence God, even though God is there (Psalm 139:8). Jesus’ metaphors for hell were based on a Zoroastrian concept introduced during the post-exilic period. The medieval church capitalized on Dante’s description of a three-story universe and acquired great wealth and power with its doctrine of the keys. What has changed in all of this is our metaphors for heaven and hell based upon our weltanschauung.
“I believe in an evolution of spirit, of continual growth and expansion of consciousness, or awareness of the nature of God. I think the mystics were on target when they said that the goal of existence is ultimate union with God, a bringing together all the elements of Creation in a cosmic Shalom.”
Of course, the atonement doctrine is another big difference. Where do you stand on that?
“Elie Wiesel, in his memoir, Night, observed a young boy dying a slow death on the gallows at Birkenau, a victim of the Holocaust. He heard a man ask: ‘For God's sake, where is God’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows....’
“The doctrine of atonement for me is the realization of the divine presence in each of us. Just as God was present in Jesus of Nazareth, experiencing his suffering and death, so God experiences our joys and our pain. Life is a journey to explain the ‘why’ of existence and it takes us in two directions: the journey inward to discover who we are as spiritual beings and the journey outward of service in the world that we may experience the magnificent astonishment of living and expressing the love of God in very tangible ways. Our salvation, so to speak, is in knowing that we are loved and that we are not alone in the universe.”
If the atonement doctrine is not what fundamentalists believe it is, why, after 2,000 or so years, do you think Christ hasn’t straightened them out?
“All persons follow the spiritual path that provides the best answers to their most important questions about how to live and what to live for, as well as an understanding of ultimate reality. It is not unusual for a person to follow many different paths during a lifetime as one’s spiritual growth evolves. Fundamentalism in any religion provides a degree of certitude and comfort in inherited dogma. All religious expressions have their essential truths and the search for dharma is a process that transcends this life. The Christ-spirit, which has many manifestations, continues to illumine us.”
Do you think Billy Graham will be surprised by what he encounters in the Afterlife?
“No, he will encounter exactly what he expects to encounter, but his spiritual exploration will continue.”
Where do you stand on reincarnation and karma?
“There is much debate over whether or not the early church believed in reincarnation. Certainly it was not a major doctrine. While some of the early Church Fathers, known as Pre-Existiani, believed in the prior existence of spirit, and some believed in the transmigration of souls, many were anathematized by later ecclesiastical councils. Some of this was political rather than theological, but generally reincarnation was condemned because it didn’t fit in with the church’s doctrine of redemption.
“My personal theology accommodates the possibility of reincarnation, especially in light of the vast amount of anecdotal evidence supporting it. However, it is not an operational belief for me. I do not live with the intention that I can correct the errors of this life in some future incarnation. The Hindu understanding of karma as the determination of one’s destiny based upon the actions of a previous existence may be compared to the Christian idea of judgment where the Christ-spirit helps us evaluate our own lives.”