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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.