Edgar Cayce in Context

by K. Paul Johnson

[NOTE: This paper was presented at the 5th Annual Cayce Health Professionals Symposium, September 16, 2000 in Virginia Beach, VA.]

It's a bit of a challenge to address a roomful of experts when one is an ignoramus in the field of their expertise!  I'm honored to be included here today, and hope that my layman's observations might be of some interest amid the more specialized presentations.  Today I'd like to focus on the broad question of what it means to put Cayce in context, what challenges that implies, what opportunities it presents.  Because the Cayce readings cover so much ground, there are many ways to contextualize them depending on what aspect of the readings is under consideration.   My book on Cayce emphasizes historical and literary context, with emphasis on religious and philosophical elements.  This symposium focuses mainly on the predominant thread in the readings, physical health.  The medical readings lend themselves to an objective, analytical approach based on evidence and reason.  But other aspects of the Cayce legacy appeal to a more subjective and faith-based approach.   There is an inherent tension between different approaches to the readings, especially insofar as they lead to different possible future paths for the ARE.  My hope in this talk is to illuminate some of the faith vs. reason issues involved in contextualizing the readings, from the standpoints of history and philosophy.   Since publication of Edgar Cayce in Context I've continued to read and ponder on the Cayce legacy, and will tell you about several recent books that have been most relevant and helpful.

The 1990s were a fascinating decade for readers of religious history and biography.  Several books reconstructing the historical Jesus were widely read, but provoked strong negative reactions from Christian believers.  My own books on Madame Blavatsky presented a radical new interpretation of Theosophical origins, which aroused considerable controversy.   In the course of my research I came to know fairly well two scholars who became highly controversial in their own faith communities, Baha'I and Radhasoami respectively, after writing historically objective books about their founders.    Juan Cole is the leading academic author on the subject of Baha'u'llah, founder of the Baha'I Faith, and was for many years a devoted member of the movement.  Ultimately he was forced out of the religion because its leaders perceived him as an internal enemy,  largely due to issues involving history and academic freedom.  David Christopher Lane is the leading academic author on the subject of the Radhasoami movement and its many gurus and offshoots.  He has been burglarized and later sued by the followers of one American Radhasoami offshoot;  attacked and insulted online by followers of another group, which has also sued him, and ordered by his own guru to close down a website devoted to the movement's history-which he refused to do.  All these problems were due to objective historical research.  This brings to mind the fact that the Mormons excommunicated Fawn Brodie after her excellent 1945 biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, was published, and the Seventh-day Adventists reacted very negatively toward the Adventist scholar Ronald Numbers, whose biography of Ellen G. White showed that she had plagiarized much of her health-related writings.  Numbers is the foremost scholar on White, the first author to publish a study of her with a university press (as was Cole in the case of Baha'u'llah) but was more or less ostracized for his scholarly research.  My own experience with the Theosophical movement pales in comparison; but my work were attacked  in two scathing reviews by the national president in 1995,  and henceforth my name was never mentioned again in any of the society's magazines; I became a nonperson.   In all these cases, the evidence would seem to suggest that many spiritual organizations are completely intolerant of the effort to place their founders in historical context.  This has not thus far been the case with ARE and Cayce, which may be a good omen for the future.   Indeed, ARE has shown itself to be quite welcoming and encouraging of new perspectives on Edgar Cayce.

I think a lot of credit for the difference in attitude toward Cayce goes to the medical readings, which  tend to focus attention on empirical evidence rather than blind faith.   Publication of the CD-ROM allows an unlimited future of objective investigation: of the readings' helpfulness to the individuals, their historical and social context, their scientific accuracy or inaccuracy, and so on.   The participation of a good number of trained medical professionals in the study of the readings provides a leavening influence that can help keep the ARE on track as a research organization.   I hope that the kind of careful thought presented in this symposium can be a model for similar approaches to the nonmedical readings.

I'd like to share a concept with you that I recently acquired from a book called The Elusive Messiah by Raymond Martin.  This book has been more enlightening about issues of faith vs. reason than any I have ever read.  The author is an academic philosopher, and the focus of his book is philosophical analysis of historical Jesus research and Christian responses to it.  I had read about a dozen historical Jesus books in recent years.  Each one would seem plausible at the time, but I had little sense of how to distinguish between competing reconstructions, or how to think about the issues they raise.  This book provides a master key to those mysteries, and also helped me understand my own historical research and reactions to it far better than before.

The key concept that helps unlock the mysteries is "methodological naturalism."  This characterizes scholarly reconstructions of Jesus, and involves the assumption that explanations must be based on natural processes and phenomena, without recourse to supernatural,  paranormal, or transcendtal influences.  But what has been misunderstood by the most skeptical authors as well as by defensive believers is that methodological naturalism is not a simple either/or choice but something more complex.   The strong form of methodological naturalism assumes that nothing paranormal or supernatural can possibly happen and therefore historical explanations must exclude reference to such elements.  Christian believers object to this assumption when they read certain Jesus researchers who seem from the outset to discard all the articles of faith before beginning their historical quests.  Particularly in the Jesus Seminar, one can find a wide range of plausibilities assigned to, for example, the healing stories, based on a priori assumptions about paranormal occurrences and spiritual healing.   Another example of this kind of tunnel vision is the assumption in some Jesus Seminar books that the resurrection must have been a story made up well after the fact, because such a thing could not possibly have occurred.  Anyone familiar with parapsychological literature would know that apparitions of the recently dead to their loved ones are extremely common, the single most commonly reported psychic experience according to Louisa Rhine.

In the case of Edgar Cayce, the strong form of methodological naturalism has been applied by skeptical critics like Martin Gardner, James the Amazing Randi, and Dale Beyerstein.  They are simply dismissive and hostile to any paranormal claims from whatever source.  Thus they know from the outset that Cayce could not possibly have demonstrated ESP-because they know there is no such thing.  This is not just methodological, but philosophical naturalism.  Which raises the question of where the boundaries between natural/supernatural, normal/paranormal are, and whether these are fixed boundaries or arbitrary divisions based on our present ignorance.

But there is another version of methodological naturalism, which Martin calls the weak form.  This simply assumes that naturalistic explanations should be exhausted before we have recourse to supernatural or paranormal influences, and that the work of the historian ends at the boundary between natural and supernatural explanation.  The weak naturalist historian does not deny the fundamental truth claims of religion, and may be a believer, but works according to rules that cannot allow him or her to affirm such claims.  If one totally rejects naturalism and allows free reign to supernatural intervention and such, it opens a Pandora's box, as there are no rules to determine relative plausibility of various paranormal claims.  Historical reconstruction cannot proceed without methodological naturalism of some sort, but too often the weak form is  mistaken for the strong and believers react accordingly.  For example, I was not saying that all Madame Blavatsky's paranormal claims about Masters were false, but rather avoiding the issue and trying to build the fullest natural explanation of her Masters possible while leaving the paranormal question open.  This was taken by certain Theosophists as denying that there was anything genuinely spiritual or paranormal about her.

In the instance of Edgar Cayce, like that of Blavatsky, there are a fair number of people for whom paranormal or supernatural claims are the single most  important thing about him.  Thus any kind of study that leaves aside such issues and tries to contextualize Cayce in a naturalistic way might be seen as a threat and implicit attack.  Fortunately, as I mentioned before, this kind of defensiveness seems to be much less of a problem with Cayce than with many other such figures, and much of this is attributable to the central role of health information in the readings.   One can study questions like those addressed in this symposium without any reference to the alleged paranormal source of the readings.  The readings themselves emphasize application and testing rather than  blind faith.

Readers of historical works about religion should make an important distinction between three kinds of books.  There are nonacademic histories from faith perspectives, and in these the assumptions vary as widely as faith perspectives vary.  Although the evidence and documentation may be of academic quality, the historical explanation in such works uses assumptions unique to the belief system and therefore unconvincing to outsiders.  There are academic and popular histories with strong naturalistic assumptions, in which everything spiritual or paranormal must be explained away because these factors must not be admitted to have any reality.  But the majority of recent scholarly writings on religion use the weak form of methodological naturalism, in which divine, spiritual or paranormal influences are left an open question.  Instead of saying "Exclude supernatural elements because they are imaginary," the weak naturalist says "Exclude supernatural elements because the historian's role is not to judge based on faith but only on reason."

One area in which Martin's book was especially interesting is his discussion of the value of expert opinion in historical matters.  I recently tuned into Jack Van Impe on TV momentarily, and was startled by the outrageous invective poured on the heads of the Jesus Seminar scholars.  But they make easy targets, since in a world where scholarly experts so often disagree, what credibility do they have for the non-expert reader?  Martin addresses this quandary:

"Every competent New Testament scholar has received a great deal of specialized training in these areas.  Relative to almost all of the rest of us, they know a tremendous amount about the ancient world, and they are much better qualified to assess competing hypotheses about what really happened.  That is why they are the experts and we are not.

Our amateur status does not mean, however, that we cannot ever pass judgment on the views of New Testament scholars.  In certain cases, we may be able to see better than a historian that he or she is in the grip of a distorting theory,  Even so, we must give expertise its due.  In my view, when it comes to trying to decide what to believe on the basis of historical evidence alone, the distinction between experts and amateurs is crucially important.  Roughly speaking, the rule for experts is this: Base your views directly on the primary evidence; although the opinions of other experts cannot be ignored, you can override their opinions by your own reading of the evidence.  The rule for amateurs, on the other hand, is this: Base your beliefs mainly on the views of the experts, if a sizeable majority of the experts agree among themselves, then accept what they say; if they disagree, then suspend judgment."

The more cultlike and fundamentalist a religious group is, the less likely this advice is to be followed.  Many kinds of expert knowledge are dismissed when they conflict with elements in a belief system.  Christian Scientists dismiss the universal agreement of experts on a great variety of medical issues, saying that Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures trumps all the medical research in history.  Mormons dismiss the universal agreement among archaeologists and geneticists that American Indians are not descended from Jews; the Book of Mormon trumps all these scientists.  Fundamentalist Christians dismiss scientific cosmology and astronomy in favor of a 6000-year-old world, because a literal reading of the Bible trumps physics and astronomy.  Blavatsky said that Jesus lived 150 B.C.; her occult knowledge trumps that of all the scholars on the historical Jesus-who may not agree on much but would certainly agree in rejecting this preposterous claim.  And so on, within a certain mindset,  revealed truth is the standard by which scientific and historical truth should be measured, NEVER the other way around.  And so we have a tower of Babel of competing claims to truth that trumps the experts.   Naturalism, whatever its limitations, provides a lingua franca which can be shared by all scholars regardless of their individual belief systems.

The question this raises for me is how the ARE should position itself (and members position themselves) in relation to scholarly or scientific experts on subjects covered in the readings.  Should the attitude be superior, dismissive, hostile, defensive?  Do the readings trump the historians, the archaeologists, the Egyptologists, the geologists, the geneticists?  Does it serve the purpose for which the ARE was founded to take an indifferent or antagonistic stance towards experts when they disagree with the readings?  Obviously, I hope the ARE will embrace the scholarly and scientific mainstream and appraise the readings in light of the constantly evolving understanding of experts in various fields, rather than standing back and saying "Our truth trumps your truth."

A recent example that I think illumines the path that ARE should not follow is that of Christian Science.  Mary Baker Eddy has been the subject of many biographies, about evenly divided between favorable and unfavorable.  The Christian Science church has been very persistent in its attacks on the more critical authors, and has a very unfriendly attitude toward researchers who have tried to use its archives for studies of Mrs. Eddy.  Even friendly authors have found themselves struggling with an institutional hierarchy that is highly resistant to critical questioning concerning its founder.  Newly published in paperback is a book that the Church has dismissed as anti-Eddy propaganda by an unbalanced woman: Caroline Fraser's God's Perfect Child.  She intertwines a memoir of growing up as a Christian Scientists, a history of the church, and a devastating indictment of its rejection of medical care.  She unearths a century's worth of horror stories about deaths directly attributable to Christian Science, usually of children denied medical care by their CS parents.  Story after heartrending story underscores her message: Christian Science as a belief system can be highly dangerous to one's health.

The contrast between the Eddy legacy and that of Cayce could not be sharper.  While her church has rejected medical science and harmed the health of its adherents, Cayce embraced medical science and gave health advice that has been increasingly shown to be validated by research.  While church archives are inaccessible to all but a selected few, the Cayce readings and correspondence are accessible to all researchers in the form of the CD-ROM.  While Christian Science supports its health claims with many anecdotes of healing, they cannot be examined and verified in the way that the Cayce CD-ROM allows.  The newest biography on Cayce is chock full of anecdotes about healings that will elevate his reputation for helping people who sought readings.   Even though Cayce embraced the medical science that was rejected by Eddy, his view incorporates hers in a sense.  "All strength, all healing of every nature is the changing of the vibrations from within, the attuning of the divine within the living tissue of a body to the creative energies.  This alone is healing.  Whether it is accomplished by the use of drugs, the knife or whatnot, it is the attuning of the atomic structure of the living force to its spiritual heritage."(1967-1)  Where Christian Science saw spiritual healing as in conflict with medical science, Cayce saw them as part of a single whole that should operate harmoniously.  "The body-physically, mentally, spiritually-is one body, yet in the varied conditions as arise within a physical body, these must often be treated as a unit-that is, each element treated as a unit yet in their fullest application they are one."(2263-001)    Christian Science, in rejecting the body and medical care, is at one end of the mind-body polarity; health statistics do not support their claim that this approach is conducive to good health.  Adventists and Mormons are at the other end of the mind/body polarity.  Adventism denies the existence of a soul that survives the death of the body, teaching instead that after death we have no continued existence but will be resurrected physically in the end times at which point our consciousness will return to life.  Mormonism teaches that God lives in a physical body with a wife, also physical, in the physical location of a glass star called Kolob, and that after death good Mormons will continue in physical bodies in celestial locales.  Adventists and Mormons have the best health statistics of any denominations in America, but exalt the physical body just as inappropriately as Christian Science dismisses it as unreal.

One of the most interesting ways to place Cayce in context has yet to be explored in any depth.  Although Andrew Jackson Davis is mentioned briefly in There is a River, and has been the subject of an article in Venture Inward, he presents a tremendous opportunity for any researcher interested in exploring a colorful and little-known life.  One could easily devote a book length study to comparing and contrasting him to Cayce.  Davis, the son of a poor shoemaker in upstate New York, was "discovered" in 1843 at the age of 17 by an amateur mesmerist named Levingston.  From their first session it was clear that Davis demonstrated an unusual degree of susceptibility to trance clairvoyance; on January 1, 1844, the subject made his first "flight through space" as he later described  it.  This refers to "traveling clairvoyance" which Davis soon decided to devote entirely to healing purposes.  Like Cayce, Davis claimed to travel to his patients through hypnotic suggestion, diagnose illnesses, and prescribe treatments.  Levingston established "clairvoyant clinics" in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, featuring Davis as psychic diagnostician.  But in 1845, Davis broke with Levingston and established a partnership with the Rev. William Fishbough; they opened another clairvoyant clinic in New York City.  There he dictated the trance discourses which became the book The Principles of Nature.  During his twenties, Davis freed himself from his sponsor and began writing books about Spiritualist philosophy.  He continued to write many books and to practice clairvoyant medicine for many years until retiring at age 83, less than a year before his death.  The roots of Davis's version of Spiritualism are defined by Robert Ellwood as an "amalgamation of the visionary instruction of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish seer, concerning the life of the soul and other worlds, with the trance-inducing practice of Franz Mesmer, father of modern hypnotism."

This much information is provided about Davis in Edgar Cayce in Context.  Since writing it I have read considerably more about Davis, which makes him more interesting still.    His 1857 autobiography, The Magic Staff, was recently reprinted in England, and provides a humorously detailed account of his early years in rural poverty and the beginnings of his mediumship.  A later volume of autobiography, Beyond the Valley, written in 1885, remains out of print, but an excerpt has recently been published in pamphlet form by Psychic Pioneer Publications in England.  This is an 1878 address on the 30th anniversary of modern spiritualism, warning of the danger of a new trend towards occultism.  Davis distinguishes three forms of Spiritualism: Rational, Christian, and Magical.  He presents himself as the natural leader of the first camp, which rejects the dogmas of the church as well as the claims of occultists like Blavatsky, and seeks instead to attain truth scientifically.  Davis's hopes for a scientific spiritualism were not fulfilled, except indirectly through the birth of parapsychology.  His fears of the rise of ancient magic in new form, led by Blavatsky, were very much fulfilled.  One of the most interesting things about Davis's later life is that he acted on his faith in science by obtaining a medical degree in middle age and practicing medicine for the rest of his life.

A few off-the-cuff comparisons and contrasts between Cayce and Davis may be appropriate here.  Cayce, like Davis, was discovered by an amateur hypnotist in his youth, and rapidly became known for his medical clairvoyance.  The failed attempts at a Davis Clinic seem to foreshadow the fate of the Cayce Hospital, and Davis's rocky relations with a series of partners were not unlike Cayce's later struggles.  Both grew up in rural areas with  fathers whose heavy drinking contributed to their families' poverty.  Most importantly, each tried to reconcile material and spiritual approaches to healing.  But the contrasts are equally striking; Davis repudiated church doctrine, while Cayce generally upheld it;  Davis was a controversial and publicity-seeking individual, whereas Cayce was much more retiring; Davis obtained a medical education, not satisfied with clairvoyance alone as a means of helping people with health problems.

The similarities between Davis, who still awaits his biographer, and Cayce, who has just found his, lead me to some comments on Sidney Kirkpatrick's new biography.  We find ourselves at a very special moment in the history of the ARE and the Cayce work.  Having reviewed Edgar Cayce: An American Prophet for Venture Inward, I'd like to stress just how important an event this book's publication is.  Although hundreds of books have been written about Cayce, not until now has there been a thorough, balanced biography based on extensive original research.  Kirkpatrick's book is exhaustive and definitive, the most informative and enlightening book ever written about the seer.  The breadth of the author's research is stupendous.  New discoveries are reported at every turn; the book is a treasure trove of biographical information that will influence future writing about Cayce for decades to come.  One interesting issue raised by the book is the traditional policy of anonymizing of the readings recipients.  While the personal information in the readings required such a step in order to protect individuals' privacy, after a lapse of 55 years perhaps the need for anonymity no longer outweighs the needs of researchers attempting to tell the Cayce story as fully as possible.  Kirkpatrick is the first author to identify a large number of readings recipients by name, and this greatly enhances his book's ability to place Cayce in context.  Will or should other authors, or ARE publications generally, follow suit and name names?

From the point of view of future research, the publication of the new biography is a pivotal turning point in how we approach Cayce.  Anonymizing the readings tended to make them more scriptural and oracular, less contextualized and therefore less useful as historical evidence.  Once we contextualize the readings with extensive detail about the people around Cayce, a whole new dimension enters our discussion about him.  The best metaphor I can suggest for this is that there is a difference between vertical and horizontal ways of understanding what the readings essentially are, what they ultimately mean.  The vertical way of understanding them is well symbolized by the vision Cayce had of himself spiralling upward from his body into a universal consciousness.  What is essentially occurring, we might say from this perspective, is that Cayce is rising above the limits of normal consciousness, tapping into something higher and broader and more transcendental, and then coming back down with information for the counselee.  Or, the opposite vertical dimension is one of depth, that is we can see Cayce probing into the depths of the counselees' being, exploring deep levels of the soul through dream analysis or meditation, and so on.  So with this metaphor, we see the readings in terms of higher and lower, inner and outer, revelation and enlightenment.

There is no problem with all this unless and until the vertical dimension (we might call it a dimension of holiness and mystery) is held to be the only legitimate way to think about the phenomenon, talk about it, write about it.  To do otherwise is to destroy the sacredness and mystery.  This is what has basically happened with the Baha'is, Radhasoamis, Theosophists, Christian Scientists, and so on.  What do I mean by the horizontal dimension or approach?  Simply an approach that explains the phenomenon in terms of social interaction and cultural influences.

The most important insight I would hope people can derive from my book on Cayce is the extent to which the readings reflect the consciousness and circumstances of their recipients.  For example, it is fairly easy to show that the readings are full of echoes of authors contemporary with Cayce or available in his time.  But the personal correspondence on the CD-ROM shows pretty decisively that these literary parallels were much more things read and understood by the readings recipients than by Cayce himself.  So the horizontal emphasis that I think is needed is to examine thoroughly all the ways that the readings can be explained in terms of the people with whom Cayce was in communication.  The more we know about Cayce the man and the minds and hearts of the people around him, the more we can understand the readings.  The more we know about the books they read, the more we can understand the literary influences in the readings.  Likewise, the more we can know about the Jewish-Roman political situation in  first century Palestine, the more we can know about Jesus.  The more we can know about the way Greek philosophical ideals interacted with Jewish mysticism and apocalypticism at the time, the more we can understand Jesus in religious and philosophical context.  But this doesn't mean that the only allowable way to understand Jesus is through painstaking, objective historical research.  Nor does the asserting the value of understanding environmental influences on the readings in any way suggest that this kind of horizontal explanation is the only allowable way to think about Cayce.   Certainly Sidney Kirkpatrick does not reduce the readings to their environmental influences, or reduce them to their horizontal dimension.  In fact, he strongly affirms them in a vertical way, endorsing their sacred dimension and uncritically assuming their accuracy in ways that an academic author would not.  But the wealth of new information that he has unearthed is a huge boon for anyone seeking to contextualize the readings in this way that I am calling for lack of a better term horizontal.  One of the most intriguing new perspectives provided by Kirkpatrick is his hypothesis that Cayce had a photographic memory, which is supported by quite a bit of evidence much of which was new to me.   While he himself does not go into the question of how this affected the readings, I think that this question merits further exploration.  To bring in the issue of photographic memory is to raise questions that are inherently naturalistic.

In closing, I'd like to turn back to Raymond Martin for a concept that closes his book and which I recommend for your consideration.  After describing a wide array of historical Jesus theories and Christian reactions, he concludes by recommending what he calls multiperspectivalism.  He writes: "My suggestion is that nonexperts can approach historical Jesus studies so as to leave it genuinely open whether Jesus had `supernatural' powers.   They can do this not by committing themselves to a single interpretation.but instead by adopting a multiperspectival approach that embraces a variety of interpretations on both sides of the naturalism divide."  The results of this may be unsatisfying for those who want certitude, as Martin continues:

".in trying to learn who Jesus actually was and what he was about, we would have learned something important about what are the most plausible options.  Naturally, we long for more than that.  We want answers.  But if the best we can do on the basis of historical evidence is to learn what are the most plausible options, then we do not learn anything more by committing ourselves to one interpretation or to one kind of interpretation.  Rather, we merely take an arbitrary stand.  Such commitments are commonly thought to be more psychologically satisfying.  In my own case, I do not find this to be true.  I find it more psychologically satisfying not to pretend.  But even if it were true that committing oneself to one interpretation or to one kind of interpretation of Jesus were more satisfying, doing so still would not enhance one's understanding of Jesus one whit.  One does not enhance one's understanding by pretending to know what one does not know."

This applies equally well to Edgar Cayce, who has been "caught between uncritical admirers and dogmatic skeptics" in the words of James Burnell Robinson.  Neither side of that polarity is interested in contextualization, because each imagines that it already knows the truth.  However, this symposium is a harbinger of a new kind of thinking about Cayce.  Thinking that starts out by admitting that it is far from attaining a complete grasp of what Cayce really did, how he did it, and what it all means.  Thinking that looks at the readings from a great number of angles, seeking an ever-deepening understanding that will never come to final answers.  The way medical knowledge has skyrocketed in recent years is a good metaphor for the way our understanding of the readings can possibly expand.   And the way alternative treatments are merging into the mainstream can be a model for the way other parts of the Cayce legacy may follow suit.

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