Halloween - the eve of All Souls Day - is essentially a pagan celebration, derived from the Samhain festival. While celebrity and cartoon character costumes may come and go, witches and vampires, fortune tellers and ghosts are still the staple favorites for thousands of youngsters. UU children are especially delighted to find out that our roots go back to Transylvania: one year our RE group in Connecticut tacked a Dracula cut-out on the door to my office - quite a fascinating tribute. Long before he understood the tenuous connection, Dracula was my younger son's favorite Halloween persona - he still has the long black velvet cape I made him, to pass on to his own children.
I can scarcely remember a Halloween party (or a school fall festival, for that matter) that didn't include a gypsy fortune teller. Lots of years an inverted gold fish bowl made a good substitute for a crystal ball. And weren't we young girls all hoping to hear about a tall, dark, handsome man in our future! Or, lacking a fortune teller, we'd bring out the Ouija board.
In central Florida there's a small town - Cassadaga - inhabited exclusively by members of the Spiritualist Church. It's sort of spooky even in the daytime - it seems deserted. No cats or dogs or even children on the streets; the houses all shuttered. But Cassadega comes to life on Halloween, when high school kids from miles around drive in for "readings," as they are called. Most of all, they wanted to visit Annie, a young woman whose predictions were so on-target that she'd paid her way through college with the proceeds.
You could hardly turn on TV the last two weeks without bumping into some show on the paranormal. As a nation, we're fascinated by the occult. Late night psychic infomercials draw thousands, who dial a 900 number to learn what the future holds. Astrology hasn't been so popular in centuries. Young people often meet each other by exchanging information on their signs. We'll probably never know if Nancy Reagan's personal astrologer influenced any of this nation's policy decisions. Shades of the ancient biblical kings. Or Rasputin in the court of Tsar Nicholas.
And it all starts up again around New Year's. The news magazines will be full of predictions for the year to come. Sometimes they even bother to assess how accurate last year's predictions have been. Not very. My favorite New Year's custom comes from Colonial Williamsburg, where lead is melted in a large cauldron over an open hearth, then poured into cold water. The resulting shapes are used to divine the future - a nice variation on tea leaves.
Since the publication of "Future Shock" a few years ago, predicting our social and economic future trends has become big - and legitimate - business. Futurists are key consultants for all companies serious about their long-range planning. And, with a new millennium almost upon us, they're even more in demand. The cover article in the current issue of "Newsweek" explores what life will be like for children born in the 21st century, for example. Children who may be genetically engineered en utero. And just this week we launched a rocket propelled by an idea just envisioned a few years ago in science fiction. The imagination can sometimes take us far into the future.
There's a lot of confusion again these days between spirituality and spiritualism. And we Unitarian Universalists are not exempt. You may recall an article in the "UU World" about three years ago which featured the practice of spiritualism in our 19th century Universalist churches, especially in upstate New York. But it doesn't stop there. I recently ordered a new UUA curriculum for adults on spirituality. And was surprised and a bit discomforted to find that one session is devoted to the use of Tarot cards. In explanation, it quotes something called "The Tarot Handbook": "The Tarot is a visual map of consciousness and a symbolic system that offers insight into the professional contribution, personal motives, and spiritual development of each individual...The Tarot operates primarily through the symbolic, non-rational aspects of consciousness, the same state from which dreams communicate. The quality and accuracy of the Tarot interpretation depends solely upon the querent's own ability, because it is only a reflection of the focus or level of consciousness of the inquirer. The Tarot is an excellent teacher, never teaching more than the person is capable of receiving."
When we integrate something like Tarot cards into our spiritual practices, we're taking futurism seriously. We've moved far beyond the fun and games of Halloween or New Year's predictions. And it can be dangerous territory. I know of one very intelligent, well educated family that never made a decision without first attending a seance and getting input from the spirit world. In one way or another, that practice scarred every member of that family.
A few years ago I was asked to facilitate an adult weekend on conflict management at our UU camp in Ontario, Canada. Simultaneously, there was another group of adults delving into the paranormal. That group was led by a young Hindu - a newly ordained UU minister and hospital chaplain. And he was assisted by a couple who were Spiritualist ministers from New York.
Early Sunday morning I was met by the distraught camp director, who asked me to help my Hindu colleague - he and his group were in terrible disarray. It seems that the evening before they had gathered by candlelight and each person put a personal belonging on a tray. One by one they were to take an item, hold it, and try to get vibrations about its owner. The minister selected a key ring belonging to one of the spiritualists, and held it tightly to encourage the message. When he opened his hand, it was covered in blood, yet he could find no cut or even a scratch.
The next morning he was still deeply shaken by the experience and could not rejoin his group. Though not a Christian, he believed it to be the stigmata of the crucified Jesus. It never occurred to him that his co-leaders might be charlatans, utilizing an old magician's trick of a gelatin capsule which dissolved at body temperature.
Forecasting is a field beset by charlatans, preying upon emotionally vulnerable people. Yet, are there some whose psychic powers are genuine? I can't answer that. Perhaps there are some who can tell you things about the past - things that even you may not know, but the facts are known to someone. And there are others who claim to have had premonitions. I woke out of a sound sleep, knowing that something had happened to my child. I looked at the clock and it said 2:10. I found out the next day that my son had been in an accident at precisely that time. Both of these circumstances deal with real time, not the future. Nor are we talking about self-fulfilling prophesies: I tell myself I'm never going to learn this computer program, and I set myself up psychologically to fail. For a moment, let's suspend both belief and disbelief, and ask another question: What would it mean if the future could really be foretold? Well yes, we'd know how to invest in the stock market and bet on a horse race. We'd know about our future health and job security. Or even if the car we buy today will have any resale value three years from now. What nations will go to war, and what other galaxies will have intelligent life. What real estate will be valued, and what dangerous situations or people to stay out of the way of.
But such knowledge isn't much good if everyone has equal access to it. So somehow we'd have to restrict it - protect it - in order to maintain an advantage. That's one possible outcome. Another is more serious philosophically. If the future can be known, that implies that there is a plan. That the Calvinists were right when they said everything is preordained - predestined. And, if that is so, then there's no such thing as free will. We are all just cosmic puppets. How can we be responsible for the good or evil we do, if we act in accord with a plan?
Heaven knows, there's already enough in life over which we have little or no control. Much of what each of us is, is an accident of birth. Or the result of early nurturing and other circumstances. Even now our adult choices may be limited by factors beyond our control. The actions of a despot half way around the world may displace our children from the security we've tried to give them, and plunge them into war. Terrorists might decide for some reason to take out the entire Outer Banks. Or some day an asteroid may collide with planet earth.
Yet the strongest among us will always refuse to be victims of circumstance. The same environment that might seem to lead one child into a life of crime could inspire another to be a great humanitarian. One popular management tool is the decision tree. Some of the branches will lead to dead ends. Others will take us along a tried and true, predictable path. A few will entail both great risks and, potentially, great rewards. Those that take these untried paths will write history. Their works will hang in museums for retrospective exhibit and examination.
We want to know the future because we want to control the future. But with such knowledge the future, not just the past, would ultimately control us. It would rob us of our freedom. Our individuality. The joy of new discovery. It would cheat us out of much that is most special about the human condition. Rather than divine the future, our efforts are better put to learning from the past. To my mind, we can best control the future by how well we serve the present. For the first time in history we have all the knowledge of the civilized world available at the flick of a switch. That leaves us few excuses to keep repeating the mistakes of the past.
When I was a child I never imagined I'd live to see the 21st century. I'll be almost 70 when it arrives, but that no longer seems so very old. In fact, when I was a child I never imagined many of the things we take for granted today. Then we had a fictitious Flash Gordon, not a real John Glenn for his second time around. In a few years our grandchildren may book a space flight for a summer jaunt just as easily as we now get a Trip-Tik to Yellowstone or Yosemite.
As exciting as I'm sure it will be, I wouldn't want the future to be entirely predictable. Right now, it's sort of like Christmas-to-come: the gifts yet to be purchased, wrapped, and placed beneath the tree, waiting to surprise and delight us. Or not. Like the year when five people gave me herbal teas - I'm still trying to drink it all. Life - the future - is usually a mixed bag of tricks and treats. We make our plans. We take sensible precautions. We consider the options. Then we hope for the best, and cope with what actually happens. I don't know about you, but I don't think I'd want it any other way. That's the mystery - the magic - of this wondrous world we live in. Amen