As a professor of religious studies at California State University, Bakersfield, Dr. (Lewis) Stafford Betty takes a somewhat unorthodox, bold, and refreshing approach in teaching his classes, including one titled The Meaning of Death. He discusses mediumship, near-death experiences, past-life studies, death-bed visions, and other psychic phenomena.
While his courses are popular with students, they apparently are frowned upon by most of his academic associates. “My departmental colleagues are embarrassed by my interest in the paranormal,” says Betty, who has been teaching at CSUB since 1972. “I have tried to share it with selected members, but none has ever shown any interest. James Joyce once described one of his fictional characters as ‘a giraffe cropping high leafage among a herd of antelopes.’ That’s me. No doubt several of my colleagues would be happy to see me retire.”
Betty earned his BS in Math and English at Spring Hill College (1964), his MA in English from the University of Detroit (1966) and his Ph.D. in Theology from Fordham University (1975). I recently put some questions to him by e-mail.
Professor Betty, to what extent do you discuss psychic phenomena with your students and how do they, especially those reared in orthodox Christianity, react to it?
“I discuss the NDE, Stevenson’s reincarnations cases, visions of the dying, and mediumship. In fact we look at mediumistic accounts of the world to come in great depth. In my opinion the Helen Greaves/Frances Banks collaboration under the title Testimony of Light is the best afterworld account in print. We read the book in its entirety, and I regard it as the crowning point of the course. Reactions to the book are
all over the yard. Christian fundamentalists often detest the book since it mentions reincarnation and describes an afterlife that emphasizes continual progress rather than eternal rest. Usually one or two materialists will register their contempt for the book, while others will be converted away from materialism after reading it. Probably about half the students are really excited about it and have their views of life after death permanently altered. Some students are utterly delighted, one ordering a dozen copies to give to all his friends.”
What motivated you to pursue your doctorate in theology and teach religious studies?
“When I was 25 and just home form a stint in Vietnam as an Army engineer officer, I picked up Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian to see if my faith in Catholicism was as invulnerable as I assumed it was. I had no answer to Russell’s arguments and saw my faith blasted to smithereens. Rudderless and miserable, I enrolled at Fordham several months later to see if I could, like Humpty Dumpty, piece it back together again. At the
time I had no interest in teaching or scholarly research. My reasons for enrolling were totally existential: I hoped my instructors would be doctors with medicine. One of them was. He roped me into his class on Hinduism, and I discovered the Upanishads. That was the beginning of the road back – not to Catholicism, but to something grander. It soon became clear that what one did with a Ph.D. in “theology,” as Fordham called the
program, was teach. So that’s what I did. And I have enjoyed it ever since – more now than ever before.”
Who or what has most influenced your current beliefs or worldview?
“The ecumenical worldview that I found at Fordham and at Columbia and Union Theological, where I also took courses, was crucial. I decided to concentrate in Asian religious thought, with Hinduism speaking to me at an intimate level. I preferred Ramanuja over Shankara, read Aurobindo voraciously, and did my dissertation on a follower of Madhva’s Vedanta, named Vadiraja. But still I was a seeker; the pieces had not come together yet. I especially worried over the question of an afterlife. I needed evidence that there was such a thing and couldn’t find it. Then came Raymond Moody’s Life after Life, three years after I started my teaching career at Cal State. You
cannot imagine the thrill I felt reading that book. Not only did it reassure me on the crucial issue of life after death; it indirectly opened up a whole new, fascinating field – what we now call the paranormal. About this time the philosophical side of me also found greener grass. John Hick’s ecumenical theism, as wide as the world, with no religion privileged over another, appealed to me tremendously. So did some of India’s best twentieth-century sages: Yogananda, Gandhi, and Radhakrishnan in particular. I was beginning to build a comfortable spiritual home, eclectic though it was. In the last twenty-five years I’ve been influenced by countless sources, and from almost every religion. Earlier today I taught Philip Kapleau’s masterpiece The Three Pillars of Zen and learned something new, and for night reading I’m presently hanging out with a book about how to pray to God by the Jewish sage Abraham Heschel. I still can’t quite figure out whether the Buddhist or the theist is on the truer track, but both have my utmost respect and I celebrate them both.”
Which of your courses is most popular among students?
“The Meaning of Death is the most popular course I teach, and one of the most popular in the university. Its popularity has soared since I converted it over from a course more concerned with the sociology of death to one that deals much more with metaphysics, especially with life after death. It is the latter that many of our students want reassurance about. They are like me thirty years ago. Of course, Introduction to Religion pulls in plenty of students. What is noteworthy is that it fills twice as fast as its rival, Introduction to Philosophy. I think many students sense, correctly, that they are more likely to get something positive and hopeful from it.”
Can you generalize as to the beliefs of students taking your courses?
“I have pretty good information on this question since I take an annual poll on my students’ beliefs about life after death in my Death course. Here are the most recent numbers: 26 strongly agreed there was life after death, eight agreed, six were neutral, one disagreed, and one strongly disagreed. These figures are typical. In regard to religious background, it is safe to generalize in the following way, even though I do not have statistics. (1) Since Bakersfield is becoming increasingly Hispanic, Catholicism, which is falling on hard times throughout the country due to a lack of priests and ineffectual leadership, is keeping pace with Protestantism – not in terms of church attendance, but nominal religious affiliation. (2) There are hard-core skeptics and agnostics in the city – quite a few are my friends – but they are still a small minority. Nationally, belief in God and afterlife are at an all-time high, and Bakersfield is no different from the rest of the country. Of course, this appearance of religion is often nothing more than a veneer, but at least it is a veneer with a positive bias. (3) Catholics are decisively more open-minded than Protestants, most of whom are fundamentalists. Catholics are also more apt to fall away from their church. (4) There has been an enormous increase in the number of Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims living in Bakersfield. There is much greater diversity in our Religious Studies courses than 25 or 30 years ago, especially in my India course, where
Indian parents send their children to learn about their native traditions from a white guy.”
What is the meaning of death, as you teach it? Do you find most students accepting this?
“Let me restate the question to read, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ For death, to me, is merely an event in that long continuum I think of as life. What, then, is the meaning of life? My conclusions about the nature of God and the meaning of life sound a lot like those of Sir Oliver Lodge, the great English physicist whose work prefigured Marconi’s. One of the leaders of the Society for Psychical Research in its heyday, he arrived at the following conclusions toward the end of his life: ‘. . let us learn by the testimony of experience – either our own or that of others – that those who have been, still are; that they care for us and help us; that they, too, are progressing and learning and working and
hoping; that there are grades of existence, stretching upward and upward to all eternity; and that God Himself, through His agents and messengers, is continually striving and working and planning, so as to bring this creation of His through its preparatory labor and pain, and lead it on to an existence higher and better than anything we have ever known.’ If you’ll pardon the sexist language – Lodge was writing in 1917 – this is a good summary of my religion.”
What attracted you to Lodge’s philosophy?
“Not only the conclusions he’s arrived at, but his strong belief that truth in religious matters is discovered by ‘laborious and unexciting investigation,’ just as in the sciences. He rejected the claim made by many a churchman in his day that ‘never by searching will man find out any of the secrets of God.’ His attempt at understanding ultimate things was empirical, just as mine has usually been. Growing up in a world of science in Victorian England, he was fully aware of his age’s materialism – what he called ‘the modern superstition about the universe.’ Spokesmen for this point of view denied the three essentials of everyone’s religion: God, freedom, and immortality. What these naysayers couldn’t sense or measure they claimed should be dismissed as illusion. And this included God, souls, and every kind of spiritual being or world.
And, of course, they rejected survival.
“Needless to say, survival of death was out of the question, a transparent superstition. In addition, since the laws of the physical universe were completely deterministic, then, if we were clever enough, we could predict every event in the universe – including all our actions. For all choice was in reality not choice at all, but automatic, unfree response to stimuli. So all talk of soul growth, based as it was on freedom of the will, was nonsense. In reality there was no freedom anywhere. Lodge compared men of this caliber to white corpuscles enclosed by the walls of the blood vessels they live within.”
Would you mind elaborating on that a little?
“They would never permit themselves to wonder if they were part of a bigger reality stretching far beyond the walls of their narrow vessels. They would never permit themselves to investigate the clues pointing to that loftier existence. They would deny the existence of the person in whose very body they lived. That’s what we do, says Lodge, when we shut out spiritual reality and all the clues to its reality – the clues I look at in my Death course. We deny ourselves the crucial advantage of feeling our lives matter to the universe, so we live and die without a sense of ultimate meaning. We are fertile ground for the sense of ‘the absurd’ that the existentialist Sartre describes.
And the same mindset continues today, right?
“Yes, we are like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the side of the mountain, only to watch it roll back down as soon as it gets to the top. Life is stupid, pointless, absurd. Camus makes the ‘raising of rocks’ sound heroic in his famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, but in reality it’s tragic, as a thoughtful person can see. How different is my own philosophy from this? Again Lodge: ‘We ourselves are a part of the agencies for good or evil; we have the power to help or to hinder, to mend or to mar, within the scope of our activity. Our help is asked for; lowly as we are, it is really wanted, on the earth here and now, just as much wanted as our body needs the help of its lowly white corpuscles – to contribute to health, to attack disease, to maintain the normal and healthy life of the organism. We are the white corpuscles of the cosmos, we serve and form part of an immanent Deity. These are great thoughts, thoughts that give meaning to our struggle and our suffering, to the whole cosmic process, even to God.’ Lodge suspects that God is no mere onlooker, but is actively involved in the unfolding of the universe. And its proper unfolding is not a foregone conclusion.”
I think I know what you mean, but would you mind elaborating on that point a little?
Let’s let Lodge do it in his own words: ‘There was a real risk about creation. . . . The granting of choice and free will involved risk. Thenceforward things could go wrong. They might be kept right by main force, but that would not be playing the game. . . .Perfection as of machinery would be too low and dull an achievement – something much higher is sought. The creation of free creatures who, in so far as they go right, do so because they will, not because they must – that was the Divine problem, and it is the highest of which we have any conception. . . . Yes, there was a real risk in making a human race on this planet. Ultimate good was not guaranteed. Some parts of the Universe must be far better than this, but some may be worse. Some of the planets may comparatively fail. The power of evil may here and there get the upper hand: although it must ultimately lead to suicidal destructive behaviour, for evil is pregnant with calamity.’
Lodge sees God as deeply involved in his project of world-building and soul-making. God sweats the results, and those of us who choose to throw in our lot with him sweat them too – in our own small way. We are co-creators with God. We plant seeds of goodness and beauty and truth in our microcosm just as God plants them in the macrocosm. We lovingly till the soil and watch. So does God. Many of my more thoughtful students are strongly attracted to this view.”
Let’s say a student begins your course as a hard-core materialist and remains a hard-core materialist at the conclusion of the course. It would seem that he hasn’t learned anything. How does such a student pass the course?
“I never ask students on an exam what their views are. Instead, I test to see if they’ve comprehended the material. For example, I ask students to give the arguments both for and against the spirit interpretation of mediumship. Two of my best and most memorable students were materialists who stuck to their guns in class discussion. We engaged each other in lively, often jolly debate. They mastered the arguments on both sides and gave them back to me on the final exam. I did not ask which side was more plausible.”
Do you agree that it is easier to find God by examining the evidence for survival rather than looking for God first and survival later, as most people seem to want to do?
“I’m of a divided mind about this. In general I find much more support for survival than for God. For me, there is ample empirical evidence for survival, so much from so many quarters that I regard it as proven. But God’s reality is not so clear. By that I mean I’m not very clear about what God is. In particular, is God the kind of being that hears my heartfelt prayers? And where do I meet God? During deep meditation when I silence the inner chatter? Is God in some sense the silence? God to me remains something of a mystery, one I wish I could understand. Mystical literature is a special help to me, and I share William James’ veneration of the mystic. It does seem that the mystic makes contact with something utterly awesome. I hope that’s God.”