EMBRACED BY THE LIGHT
Near-Death Experiences in Catholic Perspective
By David Toolan,S.J.
The best seller list of the weekly The New York Times Book Review often serves as a good gauge of what theologians should pay more attention to, namely, what is happening at the grassroots of American life and culture. Despite its secularistic public reputation, you see, the United States is a "religion mad country.") In early February when I finally sat down to write this paper, the 1994 edition of Embraced by the Light, Betty J. Eadie's graphic account of her near-death experience some 20 years ago, was number 14 on the list. The book had been the leader or near the top for 120 weeks. In this rather elaborate account, Mrs. Eadie, a sometime Catholic and the mother of eight children, describes what happened to her the night of November 19, 1973, after a partial hysterectomy. She began to hemorrhage and was unable to ring for a nurse to come to her aid. Age 31 at the time, Betty Eadie apparently died for a few hours, only to awake into another world that seemed a lot more real than this one. "I saw that death," she says, "was actually a 'rebirth'." 2
Mrs. Eadie was confused at first. She found herself floating above the hospital bed upon which her corpse lay -- and it took her a while to realize the body was hers. Almost immediately, though, she meets three elderly guides dressed like monks, her "guardian angels," who reassure her and tell her she has died prematurely. After an astral-travel visit home to her husband and children (who do not yet know she has died and with whom she cannot communicate), she finds herself racing through a noisy, dark tunnel-something analogous to the birth canal by which she first arrived on earth. ("I felt as if I had been swallowed up by an enormous tornado.") At the end of the passage is a "pinpoint of light" to which she is instinctively attracted. Reaching the light she is embraced by the radiant "figure of a man" whom she does not doubt is "my Savior, and friend, and God . . . Jesus Christ." "It was the most unconditional love I have ever felt, and as I saw his arms open to receive me, I . . . said over and over, 'I'm home. I'm finally home'." 3
Mrs. Eadie, it appears, is an insatiably inquiring woman. Given this extraordinary opportunity, she peppers Jesus, "far more brilliant than the sun," with questions. Why are there are so many churches? What is the purpose of life on earth, "the plan of creation" and so forth? The answers come telepathically. Regarding the diversity of religions, she is told that each of us is at a different level of spiritual development and understanding.
Each person is therefore prepared for a different level of spiritual knowledge. All religions upon the earth are necessary because there are people who need what they teach. People in one religion may not have a complete understanding of the Lord's gospel and never will have while in that religion. But that religion is used as a stepping stone to further knowledge. Each church fulfills spiritual needs that perhaps others cannot fulfill. As an individual raises his level of understanding about God and his own eternal progress, he might feel discontented with the teachings of his present church. . . At every step of the way, these new opportunities to learn will be given. There is a fullness of the gospel, but most people will not attain it here. In order to grasp this truth, we need to listen to the Spirit and let go of our ego. 4
In order to grasp the purpose of life on earth, Mrs. Eadie is given a vast demonstration. "I remembered the creation of the earth," she says; "I actually experienced it as if it were being enacted before my eyes." She is, in fact, introduced to a pre-existent Platonic spirit world -- the "seminal reasons" of creation, perhaps, in the mind of God.
All people as spirits in the pre-mortal world took part in the creation of the earth. We were thrilled to be part of it. We were with God, and we knew that he created us. . . Also, Jesus Christ was there. I understood, to my surprise, that Jesus was a separate being from God, with his own divine purpose, and I knew that God was our mutual Father. . . As we all assembled, the Father explained that coming to earth for a time would further our spiritual growth. Each spirit who was to come to earth assisted in planning the conditions on earth, including the laws of physics as we know them, the limitations of our bodies, and the spiritual powers that we would be able to access. We assisted God in the development of plants and animal life that would be here. Everything was created of spirit matter before it was s created physically -- solar systems, suns, moons, stars, planets, life upon the planets, mountains, rivers, seas, etc. . I was told by the Savior that the spirit creation could be compared to one of our photographic prints; the spirit creation would be like a sharp, brilliant print, and the earth would be like its dark negative. This earth is only a shadow of the beauty and glory of its spirit creation. 5 Shades of Plato's cave! It is what we need for our growth, Mrs. Eadie thinks. "It was important," she says, "that I understand that we all assisted in creating our conditions here "
Thereafter, her three monk-like angels and two women conduct her on an educational tour of the heavenly vestibule, including a supernal clothing factory (making celestial garments), a library of knowledge without books and a paradisal garden. In the wondrous, musical garden Mrs. Eadie penetrates a rose that, like the other flowers there, is "singing praises to the Lord with sweet tones of its own." "I felt the rose's presence around me," she says, "as if I were actually inside and part of the flower. I experienced it as if I were the flower. "6
Continuing on her tour, she learns even more about the laws of the universe -- the power of positive and negative thoughts, the efficacy of prayer, that there are "many worlds" besides our own, that there is no reincarnation and that suicide and abortion are wrong, etc.. "We understood," she says of misconceptions about reincarnation, "that memories would be contained in the cells of our bodies . . . in our subconscious minds. . . Further, I understood that these memories are passed down through the genetic coding to our children. These memories then account for many of the passed on traits in families, such as addictive tendencies, fears, strengths, and so on. I also learned that we do not have repeated lives on this earth; when we seem to 'remember' a past life, we are actually recalling memories contained in the cells." 7
Finally, Mrs. Eadie appears before a "council of men" to review her own life. "And I realized," she says, "that the council was not judging me. I was judging myself. Their love and mercy were absolute." 8 The heavenly host then bid her to return to earth; reluctantly but with a new sense of her mission here, she does. By earthly clock-time, Mrs. Eadie had been dead for approximately two to three hours.
Though more detailed than most near-death accounts, Betty Eadie's otherworldly experience is typical for what is characteristically missing. The whole thing is peaceful; there is no fear, no purgatorial suffering or the torments of the damned. In the current glut of similar life-after-death reports, negative experiences do occur but represent a small fraction. Unlike comparable testimony from the Middle Ages, 20th century near-death experience is overwhelmingly positive.
Neuroscientists and psychiatrists may and often do scoff at such return from-the-dead reports, attributing them either to brain disorders or to hallucinogenic defense mechanisms against the terror of death. If such "medical materialists" had it in their power, they would ban NDEs from the public square. But the American public is fascinated by near-death testimonies. The book store shelves are crowded with dozens of accounts like Mrs. Eadie's, usually catalogued under the heading of "New Age," in some cases under "Occult" and rarely under "Religion." In the popular mind -- in part because mainstream theology has abandoned it to them -- New Agers hold a near-monopoly on the interpretation of near-death experience.
But if New Agers and occultists are the leading enthusiasts for this genre, they do not hold a monopoly on the phenomenon itself. The testimonies to it involve people from every sort of cultural, social, religious and non-religious background, from atheists to the very devout Hindus. Mrs. Eadie herself cannot be classified as a New Ager; if anything she is an Evangelical Christian. Since the 1970's, a small industry of sympathetic researchers have studied the phenomenon in detail.
In what follows, I shall try to locate near-death experiences like Mrs. Eadie's within the ongoing Catholic reflection about eschatology-traditionally titled "the four last things" (death, judgment, hell and heaven). How are these scouts into the other world to be seen and understood within our developing tradition? My vantage point, however, will be the United States and how near-death experience has been understood there.
I. THE ISSUES
1. The Perspective of Current Catholic Eschatology
Clearly, near-death experience can be taken in many ways. On the one hand you have the skeptics, usually doctrinaire scientific materialists. On the other side, you have a group of open-minded researchers who, while denying that near-death experience (hereafter referred to as NDE) constitute hard "proof" of survival after death, defend the transformative significance of such experiences. In between -- and caught in the academic crossfire -- you have the popular response, some of it positive, some negative. Many conservative, evangelical Christians, for instance, think NDEs represent nothing but New Age bluster, in fact Satan's trick -- a snare to lull sinners into a false sense of security. New Agers, it is said, would lure the devout into occult practices like astral projection. Worse, they would sell us the false bill of goods that there can be salvation without Christ. If NDE testimonies amount to empirical evidence of life after death, conservative Christians object, then the Bible's revealed promises would seem to be superfluous. Still more disturbing, if immortality is our natural birthright, then what need have we for a redeemer to vanquish death?
The unchurched and those coming from the spiritualist and "positive thinking" schools of American religion, on the other hand, have rushed to take NDEs in a purely personal and ahistorical way -- as confirmation of the soul's natural immortality. In addition, they typically fit NDEs into some comforting evolutionary scheme that confirms the modern myth of progress and limitless self-improvement. For New Agers like actress Shirley McLaine, God is simply there as the condition of possibility for the entrepreneurial activity of the autonomous self, a celestial gas station for an upwardly mobile career. The vast majority of church-going Americans, however, are put off by this kind of self-aggrandizement and tend to view people like MacLaine as better actors than they are spiritual guides. Still, the church-going masses have made the books by Moody, Eadie and others run-away best sellers. They are, after all, Americans -- and for Americans personal experience tends to constitute the principal (if not the one and only) guide of their lives. Hence NDEs carry weight, are considered plausible, even fascinating.
Up until this point, my impression is that most Catholic theologians today, while refraining from the harsh judgments of Evangelicals and fundamentalists, have kept NDEs at a distance, regarding them with suspicion. Revisionist academic theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, have largely ignored or repudiated the phenomenon as pie-inthe-sky "cheap grace," or as a "narcissistic distraction from the ethical and social mission of the church." 9 This neglect is no doubt due in part to a reluctance to be branded by fellow academics as peddlers of opium to the masses. Or, alternately, the fear is that one will commit the postcritcial crime of wishful thinking. Closer to home, however, the neglect of NDEs owes much to the sea change Catholic eschatology has undergone since Vatican II. The theme of Christian hope was little developed in Tridentine theology; to the extent that it was considered at all, the focus was other-worldly and fell on individual outcomes and threats -- so much so that the effect was to underplay the Gospel promise. Encouraged by the council, in our day "the focus of eschatology is on the realization of the promised reign of God in all human experience and in all creation.'' 10 Theologians have returned to Scripture, to patristic writings and the early liturgy of the church as their guides in this matter. This turnabout has allowed us to see that all Christian anthropology -- indeed christology, ecclesiology and the sacraments -- must be understood in the light of the goal of the fully realized reign of God. This has led to a renewed focus on the communal and this-worldly redemption. The idea, as Monika Heilwig puts it, is "not to exclude but to balance the concern with what transcends death and human history in the world as we know it.'' ll
The University of Chicago's Father David Tracy may be typical of the suspicion with which Catholic theologians have regarded NDEs. As he reminds us, all doctrines of an "afterlife" can be turned into the "triumph of Feuerbach" -- a reward for the compulsive ego's drives and desires (or projections).~2 You can be sure, says Tracy, that whatever encourages the omnivorous ego will be embraced by a consumer-oriented culture as the "true religion." In contrast, the new, post-Vatican II direction of Catholic
eschatology emphasizes the "dangerous God" revealed in the Cross -- that is, the great mystery hidden in the passion narratives of the victims of history and the struggle for justice. Such a countercultural viewpoint suggests that the "hope of human beings is not merely life after death but a hope for history itself...The fact that God -- the origin, sustainer and end of all reality -- acts in history becomes the heart of Christian faith and thereby hope in history." 13
A hope that reaches beyond history, a hope for history -- the balance Monika Hellwig speaks of is fit for an aerial acrobat and is difficult to maintain. The trick is to make the connection between the two' to understand that without the "beyond," there is no hope for this "veil of tears.
2. The Vision of Heaven and Hope for History
The emphasis on making a difference in history, as we well know, can lead to Pelagian activism (and quick burn-out). Ironically enough, a this worldly stress in eschatology obscures the enormous difference that overcoming the fear of death can make for our role in history. What we must see more sharply is that our attitude toward death and the afterlife has nearly everything to do with our ability to persevere in serving truth and justice -- even at the risk of life. What was it, Rodney Stark asks in his recent book, The Rise of Christianity, that kept the early Christians within the walls of the Roman empire's plague-ridden cities when everyone else who could afford to, including pagan priests and the physician Galen in the epidemic of A.D. 165, fled to their rural villas? Christians held on, mobilizing social services to nurse the sick and dying -- and consequently had a much higher survival rate -- precisely because of their belief in the resurrection. 14 That belief and the strange idea that God loves those who love one another, Stark argues, made all the difference in the effectiveness with which Christians confronted the social and spiritual crisis that epidemics brought with them. So-called paganism had no such resources to bring to these disasters (when it is estimated that a third to a fourth of the population died). But Christianity did -- and it not only saved lives but bonded Christians to pagans in new ways. The survival rate of pagans jumps three times if they were nursed by Christians.' 15 This is the context for Tertullian's famous remark: "It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of our opponents. 'Only look,' they say, 'look how they love one another'." Apology 39)
The difference, then, that eschatological visions of life after death make to concrete, practical behavior has to be acknowledged in the most unequivocal terms. At the same time we have to underscore the bitter cup out of which Christian hope drinks. The formula for this new vintage is this: No resurrection without passion narrative, without the sting of death. Christian hope, a theological virtue, is not to be confused with conventional optimism. It sees through the longings and machinations of the individual and society to beat death, to find an exclusively human solution to it. Instead it trustfully commends the whole, embodied self, humanity and the cosmos to the promise of the Creator of heaven and earth -- who is both transcendent and immanent in all things. Christ's death is the decisive clue that the Holy One, to whom the dead are living, can be trusted in this matter. The glory of God -- and thus eternal life-pervades all perishing things. 16
Christian hope in the resurrection, says historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, begins with one fundamental human question, "Am I loved?" Genetics, nurture and neurosis translates that question into "Am 1 worthy to be loved?" 17 The second question invites the illusion that we will only be loved if we acquire strength, money, fame, power or, perhaps, some unique misery or victimhood to be clung to and trumpeted. The second question, in short, gets us into the business of inventing idols-earthly substitutes for God that spuriously promise life but which in fact prevent us from sensing the real answer to the first question. YES, the cosmos and its Creator shout: You have been loved, are loved now and will be forever. So it has been since the foundation of the universe. But we don't hear that sound, that word. The startling function of death -- our final parting and all the small deaths of our passion stories -- is to expose the hell-on-earth our empty idols produce for ourselves and others. At the same time death leaves us naked before the "l'amor que move il sole e le altre stelle" (the love that moves the sun and the other stars). Death reveals-reveals both the sham of our lives and new life, the hope of resurrection that only Love can accomplish.
As Russell puts it, Love meets us and embraces us, saying, I know your pain, beloved; I know and feel it myself; and I fill it and you . . . Heaven is the acceptance of love; which burns through and shines through the pain, transforming it. Love would rather go through hell than go to heaven without it. 18
Rooted in the Hebrew tradition of covenantal promise, this "assurance of things hoped for" is not a Platonic, much less Gnostic, metaphysical dualism, certain that the "spark" of the soul is either intrinsically or by dint of ascetical effort immortal. In other words, it is in no way a denial of finitude, guilt or the fear of death -- a fear that throughout "nightmare history" has lured fragile human animals to identify with clan, state, nation, corporation, revolutionary cell, scientific society and race in the mistaken belief that these "solid connections" will immunize us against evil and save us from the death that our enemies must suffer. 19 The Gospels reveal the humbug here, in fact, show the murderous intent behind such systems -- that they require sacrificial victims. And just because Christian hope in the resurrection is based on the bloody story of the Gospels, it doesn't need to cover up for the social system, doesn't need to hide the human condition from us. It opens us up to self-knowledge and our collective delusions, our own phony fronts and those of our cultural institutions (the pretense to be "Number One," the habit of making victims and finding scapegoats to righteously eliminate, etc.). In particular at this time, the Gospel accounts exposes the lies, the hollowness of the Faustian modern self who would be causa sui, a self-created hero winning immortality by his own acts, works and discoveries. There is no invitation to self-justification here, no excuse for self-inflation, "fording over" others or nationalistic pride -- because the great stumbling stone of Christ's passion and death blocks these flighty paths to "the Light." In fact the death of Christ shows what is going on when a culture's sacrificial rituals really work:-"they transfer the existing rivalrous antagonisms onto one figure against whom all can unite, an act that miraculously dissolves existing tensions and replaces them with a social bond." 20 The common enemy being got out of the way -- be it Blacks, Jews, Muslim immigrants, or welfare dependents -- the social bond then masquerades as peace, a return to an idolatrous business-as-usual.
If we acknowledge, then, that the terror of death and the consequent quest for a self-constructed immortality drive the dynamo of a fallen history, and that it was this dynamic that fixed Christ on the cross, we will be on the lookout for the most penetrating social science we can find -- to see through the lies we live and the official myths that cover them up. But we will also be on the lookout for what Ernest Becker called a "legitimate foolishness" -- a "Beyond" in the midst of time that provides a standpoint outside the sacrificial rituals and master-slave dialectics of our society -- a place for humor, critical distance, leverage against the violence and forgiveness ("Forgive them for they know not what they do"). All four. Otherwise, there is no stopping the cycle of violence. Otherwise, say with critical distance and plastic explosives alone at our disposal, there is no way of avoiding a politics of resentment and more violence -- the politics of the totalitarian right or left.
This is where heaven enters. The vision of heaven -- of Eden restored or of the celestial Jerusalem -- has traditionally supplied the crucial place of leverage for moving the world in a humane direction. It offers that "eternal now" where Love walks with us, sups with us, suffers with us and conquers the mechanical forces of death. Ours is a vulnerable God, the Holy One fully disarmed, who discloses that Love will go through hell lest any be lost.
The trouble is that for us jaded moderns the image of heaven has lost its potency, its power to move us as it once moved Vante and his contemporaries. It has become enfeebled, reduced to a mere literary tradition, a curiosity for the archivist. We need convincing that the "kingdom of heaven" is here and alive right now. And what better than testimonies to bring that truth home? Could this be the larger function of near-death experiences in our time?
3. Questions to put
The problem here for American Catholic theology, let us be plain, has to do with the interpretation of NDEs, their human meaning -- and the suspicion that what is coming out of these testimonies promotes a quick fix for death, that they offer a specious bypass around the Cross. In brief, that they amount to "cheap grace." The problem is basically threefold. First, in an American cultural context, the suspicion is that the experience will often be understood in an individualistic way -- as if all that were at stake were personal immortality. The social implications are left out. Second, personal immortality, it is thought, is too often understood according to a dualistic model of the soul-body (or mind-body) relationship -- again, as if the point of spiritual practice were, in gnostic fashion, to shuck the prison-house body and abandon history and the evil material world. No "hope for history," in other words. Third, the often saccharine optimism about death that pervades some accounts of neardeath experience puts us on the alert, after what we have just seen above, that there may be a cover-up here, a bit of mystification. Catholic theologians, needless to say, will resist all three moves.
Yet it would be a mistake, I think, to use our beliefs in the revelatory power of the Cross, bodily resurrection and the social nature of redemption as justifications for a quick dismissal of NDEs. Indeed, turning the question of NDEs into an academic debate between neognostics and incarnationalists can summon up imaginary heretical ghosts --or strawmen -- that properly belong only to certain spiritualist interpretations and not to most NDE witnesses themselves.
The question can be put more empirically. Is it the case that near-death travelers typically read their experience as a private revelation for their own exclusive benefit? Are they commonly narcissistic? Or again, except for those coming from the spiritualist tradition, do NDEs make a big thing of the independence of soul from body and consequently flee their social and civic obligations? The evidence suggests that the answer to these questions is a fairly decisive no. In fact, those who have interviewed NDEs and assessed their generally healthy mental status make quite a point of the fact that while NDEs often led lackluster lives before the event, afterwards they typically return to their bodily lives with new energy and commitment to making a difference here.
That is the first point: Though the tone is different, positive rather than fear-laden, the form of the contemporary return-from-death testimony is no less a conversion story than its medieval counterparts were. Or, to put it another way, like pilgrims who discover in their travels a different way of understanding their society, NDEers often return with a new and sometimes radically compassionate and ecumenical understanding of the world. When Black Power advocate Malcolm X made the hiraj to Mecca in the mid 1960's, for instance, he returned with a new cosmopolitan outlook. This is not unlike what sometimes happens to NDEers and the parallel should be noted.
Second, let me suggest at the outset that NDEs and cognate experiences, as I have just suggested above, do carry social implications of major importance. In my view they should also be linked to visionary experiences -- whether poetic like William Blake's or mystical like the prophet Ezekiel's -- of an ideal society. Near death experiences, we must be aware, connect us with a wide range of ecstatic human experience that has to do with imagined arcadias, perfect moral commonwealths, utopias and apocalyptic visions of a messianic age or the Second Coming. 21 Once one
makes the connection to the utopian or apocalyptic imagination it becomes apparent that we are also dealing here with at least implicit social criticism of the status quo. I have not come across a single case of an NDE returning resolved to be a better shopper!
Our third problematic area, whether NDEs somehow serve the purpose of a cover-up, that they delude us into imagining we can evade creatureliness, guilt and death -- this is a more difficult question to answer. It probably all depends upon the interpretive tradition into which one inserts near-death experiences. Catholic theologians have not been particularly helpful here, I must say; they have largely left the interpretive job to the ministrations of New Agers.
I shall divide my remarks on NDEs into four sections. First, I will offer some background and history. Second, I will briefly survey the phenomenology of the experience and its typical features, bearing in mind the likelihood that "negative" examples are under-reported. Third., I shall review the major lines of interpreting andor explaining away NDEs. As we shall see, even if one is inclined to view NDEs favorably, it is not enough to call them transcendental or mystical experiences and let it go at that. These are not direct transcripts of the divine Voice and the testimony is conflicting. Consequently very little can be said about the plausibility of reincarnation from this data, except that the question is on people's minds. Fourth, I will consider the theological understanding of NDEs and attempt to locate them within the perspective of contemporary Catholic eschatology. My recommendation will be that the Church embrace NDE testimony as visions of heaven that give hope for history.
II. NEAR-DEATHS IN HISTORY
4. Background and History
The term near-death experience was coined by Raymond A. Moody Jr., M.D., and brought to public attention in 1975 by his worldwide best seller, Life after life, which collected and analyzed dozens of return-from death testimonies like Mrs. Eadie's. In his introduction Moody made it clear that "I am not trying to prove that there is life after death." "My hope for this book," he wrote, "is that it will draw attention to a phenomenon which . . . has great significance, not only for many academic and practical fields -- especially psychology, psychiatry, medicine, philosophy, theology, and ministry -- but also for the way in which we lead our daily lives." 22
Moody's book appeared at a time when the modern medical technology of resuscitation was making NDEs almost commonplace. After a survey conducted in the early 1980's, pollster George Gallup Jr. concluded that one out of 20 Americans (or some eight million adults) had had a NDE. 23 Research into NDEs or pre-death experiences, as Moody acknowledged, traces its roots back to the pioneering work of a turn-of-the-century Swiss geologist, Albert Heim. On a climbing expedition in the Alps, Heim took a near-fatal fall. As he fell, something quite unusual happened to him, which he describes as follows:
I saw my whole past take place in many images, as though on a stage at
some distance from me. I saw myself as the chief character in the
performance. Everything was transfigured as though by a heavenly
light and everything was beautiful without grief or anxiety, and
without pain. The memory of very tragic experiences I had had was
clear but not saddening. I felt no conflict or strife: conflict had been
transmuted into love. Elevated and harmonious thoughts dominated
and united the individual images, and like magnificent music a divine
plan swept through my soul." 24
This pre-death experience bears a striking resemblance to NDEs -- and I cite it here to remind you that in considering the significance of NDEs, we should place them in the company of a range of analogous experiences that need have little to do with actual physical death. A close brush with death may trigger them. Or, I am prepared to say, moments of such intensity can be occasioned by a variety of circumstances: extreme stress, a sudden break in routine, loss and bereavement, physical exercise, psychedelic drugs, serendipity, sensory deprivation, yogic exercise and mediation practice. According to surveys conducted by the National
Opinion Research Center, nearly 80 percent of Americans have had such ecstatic moments, usually quite by accident, at one time in their life or another. In the 1960's the psychologist Abraham Maslow countered the bias of his profession by calling them "peak experiences," which he associated with "self-actualizing" individuals or peak performance.
We are dealing here with something that has a long, cross-cultural history. Stories of the soul's descent after death into the "underworld," as evidenced by shamanic rituals of death-rebirth or in texts like the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh and Plato's Republic, abound in most of the world's philosophic and religious literature dating back to the earliest recorded times. Likewise, in order to represent states of ecstasy, divinization and royal or prophetic consecration, many ancient traditions adopt the symbolism of an ascent to celestial realms. Think, for instance, of Jacob's dream of the ladder (Gen. 28:10-19), Moses on Mt. Horeb (Ex. 3:1-12) or the prophetic calls of Isaiah and Ezekiel (Isa. 6:1-10; Ez. 1-2:21). In similar fashion, Islamic tradition has it that the Prophet Mohammed was miraculously transported from Mecca to Jerusalem one night; and from the rock of the Temple he ascended on a winged steed to visit the seven heavens in the company of the angel Gabriel.
New Age enthusiasts are aware of this historical lineage. They will advert to the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead, and to the NDEs of the actor Peter Sellers and World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Or they will cite NDE episodes in the autobiographies of Carl Jung and the 19th century Lakota Sioux Indian (and Catholic catechist) Black Elk. Afflicted with paralysis at the age of nine, Black Elk has a vision in which he is escorted by "thunder beings" (the equivalent of angels) to a tipi in the sky, where the powers of sky, earth and the four winds give him the gifts of healing and spiritual insight. 25 But Christians can find ascents to heaven (and descents to hell) aplenty in intertestamental apocalyptic literature (for example, the apocryphal Book of Enoch), Gregory the Great's Dialogues, the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastic History of the English People, the Treatise on the Purgatory of St. Patrick and the medieval "art of
dying" literature. 26 In the medieval context, in particular, return-from death accounts take the form of conversion stories, often directed to reinforce the doctrine of purgatory and penitential practices. The reference to conversion narratives, however, points up the structural resemblance between near-death experience and the death-rebirth experienced in medieval and modern pilgrimages. In both cases a person withdraws from the conventional world into a "liminal" space of maximum imaginable freedom and communion (a kind of "antistructure") and then returns to society renewed. 27
Medieval near-death accounts have a much darker tone than their modern counterparts. In book four of his Dialogues, Gregory the Great, for example, tells the story of a certain soldier who was struck by plague and thought dead, only to revive and report an otherworld journey. Aspirants to paradise, the soldier says, had to cross a bridge over a "gloomy river which breathed forth an intolerably foul-smelling vapor." The bridge was a test: "If any unjust person wished to cross, he slipped and fell into the dark and stinking water. But the just, who were not blocked by guilt, freely and easily made their way across to the region of delight." The soldier told of seeing a certain Stephen on that bride -- a merchant who had also recently died of the plague. "In his attempt to cross . . . Stephen's foot slipped, and the lower half of his body was now dangling off the bridge. Some hideous men came up from the river and grabbed him by the hips to pull him down. At the same time, some very splendid men dressed in white began to pull him up by the arms." Called back to his body, the soldier "never learned the outcome of the struggle." Yet Gregory has no doubts that the scene represented the war between Stephen's "carnal vices" and his "good work of almsgiving." 28 Unlike the "continuing education" atmosphere of 20th century NDEs, the medieval parallels stress the interim period between death and resurrection -- a period of obstacles and tests (like the slippery bridge), purificatory torments and the threat of outright doom.
This whole rich tradition of otherworldly visions got its Christian start, of course, from the final chapters of the Book of Revelation and from St. Paul's allusion in the Second Letter to the Corinthians to a man (doubtless himself) who was "caught up to the third heaven -- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows -- was caught up into paradise and heard things which must not and cannot be put into human language" (2 Cor. 12:2-4). In the 14th century, Dante Alighieri, who was familiar with this ample testimonial tradition, would give it classic expression in The Divine Comedy, most notably in the culminating vision of paradise, where the Light of God -- whose center is everywhere, circumference nowhere -- displaces earth as the center of the cosmos.
5. The Phenomenology of NDEs
Sympathetic investigators of today's ND)Es distinguish the traits or phases of a "core" near-death experience. In Life After Life, Raymond
Moody listed nine traits: 1) A sense of being dead; 2) peace and painlessness; 3) out-of-body experience; 4) the tunnel experience; 5) meeting people of light; 6) encountering a supreme "Being of Light"; 7) the life review; 8) rising rapidly to the heavens; 9) reluctance to return.29
In addition to these traits, NDEs refer to being in a different time and space. They speak of time being compressed and nothing like clock time. Similarly, the boundaries of ordinary space are suspended; NVEs walk threturn. 29ls and merely to think of a destination is to be there. Mrs. Eadie's trip to the other side exhibited all these features. In George Gallup Jr.'s analysis of Nl)E content.30 the frequency of these elements appears as follows:
Out of Body 26
Accurate visual perception 23
Audible sounds or voices 17
Feelings of peace, painlessness. 32
Light phenomena 14
Life review 32
Being in another world 32
Meeting other beings 23
Tunnel experience 9
As this run-down shows, it is rarely the case that every NDE includes
all nine elements. The only case known to me personally, a friend who
briefly died while undergoing an angioplasty, contained only kinesthetic
awareness of "presences" radiating love. He remembers nothing more,
though that was enough to conquer his fear of death before subsequent
triple by-pass heart surgery. In any case, enough NDEs exhibit the full
gamut of Moody's nine elements that he offers the following composite
or ideal portrait:
A man is dying, and as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.
After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he is still a "body," but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before -- a being of light -- appears before him. This being asks him a question, nonverbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love, and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.
Later he tries to tell others, but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also finds that others scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still, the experience affects his life profoundly, especially his views about death and its relationship to life. 3'
Carl Jung's near-death experience following a 1944 heart attack illustrates some but not all of these features.
It seemed to me that I was high up in space. Far below I saw the globe of the earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light. I saw the deep blue sea and the continents. Far below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead of me the subcontinent of India. . . Later I discovered how high in space one would have to be to have so extensive a view-approximately a thousand miles! . . .
A short distance away I saw in space a tremendous dark block of stone, like a meteorite. . . An entrance led into a small antechamber. To the right of the entrance, a black Hindu sat silently in lotus posture upon a stone bench. He wore a white gown, and I knew he expected me.... As I approached the steps leading up to the entrance into the rock, a strange thing happened: I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me -- an extremely painful process. Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried with me everything I had ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. . . I consisted of my own history and felt with great certainty: this is what I am. . .
This experience gave me a feeling of extreme poverty, but at the same time of great fullness. 32
Jung's "vision" has some but not all of the elements of a core NDE-notably an out-of-body experience, peacefulness, rapid ascent, something analogous to a life review and the reluctance to return. When his physician, "Dr. H.," appears "from the direction of Europe" to tell him he has no right to leave earth and must return, Jung is "profoundly disappointed." "In reality, a good three weeks were still to pass before I could truly make up my mind to live again." 33
Kenneth Ring, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut and next to Moody the best known NDE researcher, revises the "core" scenario only slightly, speaking of drifting through a "dark void," encountering felt "presences," and emphasizing the chronological unfolding of the experience. Ring describes five stages: peace, body separation, entering the darkness, seeing the light and entering the light-though again few informants include all five. Other investigators (Michael B. Sabom, Sarah Kreutziger, John Audette, Ian Stevenson, Bruce Greyson, Fred Schoonmaker and Karis Osis), all of whom are allied to the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS), report a roughly similar break-down, and assert that NDEs bear no resemblance to dream or hallucinatory states. The type of death (e.g., cardiac arrest vs. suicide), these researchers claim, makes no difference. Nor does religious or social background prove to be a decisive factor in the frequency of such episodes. With slight variations -- Buddhists experience sunyata, Hindus identify the Light with Shiva, Vishnu and Krishna, Melanesians see heaven in terms of village life, etc. -- the phenomenon is found across cultures.
In passing, I want to stress once again, however, that phenomena associated with NDEs -- a sense of "presences," review of life and other paranormal affects -- can be found in an array of crisis situations -- such as those of castaways, bereavement and sudden, dislocating changes in social status. Moreover, the major social meaning of NDEs -- that in the end love conquers, despite suffering and loss along the way -- can be found abundantly in children's literature. 34 NDEs should not be viewed as utterly unique or out-of-the-synch with the messages we get from fairly pedestrian sources in our culture.
6. Conflicting Messages
The fact that similar general motifs are to be found in NDEs, however, can be very misleading. Yes, out-of-body experience, passage through a dark space and visions of supernal light and love are common -- but the messages that come through (usually with apodictic certainty) to the voyagers can be, and usually are, very different and not easy to reconcile with each other. As I mentioned at the outset, Betty Eadie, a churchgoing Christian, is sure that when she is "embraced by the Light" it is Christ the Lord and Savior. Her experience of God is trinitarian and clearly for her the Christian revelation enjoys a certain preeminence over other religious "stepping stones." She also gets the word that life on this planet is a one-shot affair; we are not reincarnated. But other NDEs fail to make the identification she does, nor are they sure reincarnation isn't the cosmic rule. Are these people talking to different "Lights," or do their preconceptions have something to do with the messages they receive?
Consider, for instance, the witness of Mr. Mellen-Thomas Benedict, a professed "information freak" who in the late 70s was "increasingly despondent over the nuclear crisis, the ecology crisis and so forth." Suffering from terminal cancer, in 1982 he was awaiting his death in a California hospice when he suddenly went over to the other side. As he was moving toward the light, he asks the roller coaster ride to stop, he wants to talk. To his surprise it does and "I had some conversations with the Light." 35
"I really wanted to know what the universe is about," Benedict reports. At which point the Light itself transformed into the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, "a mandala of human souls on the planet."
Remember, he came to this moment with a deep ecologist's view that humanity is a cancer upon the earth. "I saw in this magnificent mandala how beautiful we all are in our essence, our core . . . I just cannot say enough about how it changed my opinion of human beings in that instant." "Does this mean," he goes on to ask the Light, "that Mankind will be saved?" The answer, one that would shock Augustine of Hippo, comes with a fanfare of fireworks:
Then, like a trumpet blast with a shower of spiraling lights, the Great Light spoke, saying, "Remember this and never forget: you save, redeem and heal yourself. You always have. You always will. You were created with the power to do so from before the beginning of the world."
In that instant I realized . . . that WE HAVE ALREADY BEEN
SAVED, and we saved ourselves because we were designed to self
correct like the rest of God's universe. 36
Mr. Benedict is not a theologian, of course, and it would be unfair to raise technical questions at this juncture. (For all I know, he could be objecting to the doctrine of sofa gratia and coming down on the side of "cooperative grace.") Nonetheless, it is fair to ask an epistemological question here. How are we to think of this "revelation"? Is Benedict's mind, now separated from the body, the pure vessel and direct transcript of the spirit world that spiritualists would have us believe? Has he been freed from all traces of his self-help American culture, as too many sympathetic interpreters seem to think? Just because modern visions are devoid of the medieval visionary's angelic choirs, St. Peter at the gate and stinking black rivers of hell, there is no reason to think they are any less influenced by cultural preconception and myth.
If overly sympathetic investigators blanch at this caveat, Mr. Benedict himself does not. In fact, he is quite forthright about how his revelation is filtered by his own personal history and stance.
The Light kept changing into different figures, like Jesus, Buddha,
Krishna, mindless, archetypal images and signs. I asked the Light,
"What is going on here? Please, Light, clarify yourself for me." . . The
Light responded. The information transferred to me was that your
beliefs shape the kind of feedback you are getting before the Light. If
you were a Buddhist or Catholic or Fundamentalist, you get a
feedback loop of your own stuff. You have a chance to look at it and
examine it, but most people do not. As the Light revealed itself to me,
I became aware that what I was really seeing was a higher Self matrix. .
. The only way I can really describe it is that the being of the higher
Self is more like a conduit. It did not look like that, but it is a direct
connection to the Source that each and every one of us has. We are
directly connected to the Source. So the Light was showing me the higher Self matrix. I was not committed to one particular religion. So that was what was being fed back to me. 37
In short, as the medieval Scholastics used to say, omnis secundum modus recipientis recipitar -- everything is received according to the mode of the receiver.
Benedict's other-worldly visit, like Eadie's, involved a tour of the cosmos, in his case of the "holographic universe." He is guided through the galaxies to the moment of the Big Bang ("the second Light").
Beyond that he is exposed to the procreation, which he experiences in quasi-Buddhist terms as "the Void," the "Eye of Creation." There he feels he is "touching the Face of God." The Void is not void: "it is full of energy." When he reverses the process, returning back home, "I was given lessons in the mechanics of reincarnation. I was given answers to all those little questions I had: How does this work? How does that work?" "What is the best religion on the planet?" Benedict proceeds to ask God. "And Godhead said, with great love: 'I don't care.' That was an incredible grace," Benedict says. "What that meant was that we are the caring beings here. The ultimate Godhead of all the stars tells us: 'It doesn't matter wat religion you are'." 38
Benedict came to this experience, it is fairly safe to assume, with the common American bias against institutional religion ("religion is bad'
spirituality is good") or that one religion is as good (or bad) as another. He probably also came to it with at least an openness to reincarnation, just as Mrs. Eadie came closed to that idea -- and both were confirmed in their suppositions. So which is it? The researchers who are favorable to NDE phenomena do not seem to be much interested in such questions -- perhaps because their major concern is the here-and-now therapeutic impact on their informants' lives. The contrast, however, between Betty Eadie and Mellen-Thomas Benedict, each in their own "feedback loop," suggests cultural determinants that our sympathetic parapsychologists choose to downplay or ignore.
NDEs, therefore, would appear to offer a very slippery ground for resolving questions of comparative religion. Given the contrary testimonies, they will not settle the question, for example, of whether souls are reincarnated. They simply pose the question, occasionally of course, with considerable force. The intriguing question, though, is why reincarnation appears to be a desirable option for so many Westerners today. For Hindus and Buddhists, in contrast -- except in the rare case of a bodhisattva -- reincarnation is not thought of as desirable. The idea of nirvana is to get out of here as quickly as you can.
7. Negative Experiences
Are NDEs never negative? Certainly the life review phase -- what we might call a rehearsal of the "particular judgment" -- can be taxing, and as we have noted nearly one third of NDEs seem to go through this ordeal. Consider, for instance, Dannion Brinkley, a former Marine and Vietnam war veteran who was struck by lightning in South Carolina in 1975.39 As a youth he had been the schoolyard bully and in Vietnam the trigger-man in an assassination squad. "The Being of Light engulfed me, and as it did I began to experience my whole life . . . This life review was not pleasant. From the moment it began until it ended, I was faced," he says, "with the sickening reality that I had been an unpleasant person, someone who was self-cantered and mean." Like Mrs. Eadie experiencing the rose from inside, Brinkley experiences his personality disorder from the inside perspective of his victims -- as if he were them. Recalling an incident where he blew the head off a North Vietnamese colonel, he tells us, "I experienced this incident from the perspective of... the colonel....I felt his confusion . . and sadness as he left his body and realized that he would never go home again. Then I felt the rest of the chain reaction -- the sad feelings of his family when they realized they would be without a provider." Then, remembering another incident when he was unloading weapons for the 1980's Contra war in Nicaragua, he remarks that "I stayed with the weapons . . . and went with the guns as they were used in the job of killing . . . All in all it was horrible to witness the results of my role in this war."
When Brinkley finishes his review, though, he doesn't get the rebuke he expects:
I looked at the Being of Light and felt a deep sense of sorrow and shame. I expected . . . some kind of cosmic shaking of my soul. . . As I gazed at the Being of Light I felt as though he was touching me. From the contact I felt love and joy that could only be compared to the nonjudgmental compassion that a grandfather has for a grandchild. "Who you are is the difference that God makes," said the Being. "And that difference is love." . . . To this day, I am not sure of the exact meaning of this cryptic phrase. That is what was said, however. 40
If tough-guy Brinkley cannot decipher this "cryptic phrase," I would offer this: Being "engulfed" by love was the precondition, the sine qua non', that permitted him to release his defense mechanisms, the cover over the lies in his life. That is the difference love makes.
Do NDEs, then, suffer not a whiff of medieval dread? It is distinctly possible that people who have had a hellish trip do not come forward to be interviewed, and so are under-reported. Bruce Greyson and Nancy Evans Bush, however, found 50 who were willing to come forward. They managed to distinguish three types of distressing NDEs. The first resembled the prototypical peaceful NDE, but was nevertheless interpreted as terrifying. "I don't like this!" reports one 35 year-old woman saying to herself of her out-of-body experience. The territory is unfamiliar, the dark tunnel scary. Mrs. Eadie, in fact, reports that though she sailed through the dark passage, she was aware there were other people there who were "lingering." She implies they were too attached to the world, not ready for the light. The second sort of response involved an experience of nothingness or of existing in a featureless void. The third entailed hellish images, often starting with a sense of falling into a deep pit.
For instance, a 28 year-old mother in labor with her second child, reported an "eternal nothingness":
A small group of circles appeared ahead of me . . . The circles were black and white, and made a clicking sound as they snapped black to white, white to black. They were jeering and tormenting -- not evil, exactly, but more mocking and mechanistic. The message in their clicking was: Your life never existed. The world never existed. Your family never existed. You were allowed to imagine it. It was never there. There is nothing here. There was never anything there. That's the joke-it was all a joke....Time was forever ... The despair was because of the absolute conviction that I had seen what the other side was -- I never thought of it as Hell -- and there was no way to tell anyone. I wouldn't matter how I died or when, damnation was out there, just waiting;. 41
A second example, reminiscent of one of Gregory the Great's tales or of Dante, comes from a woman who Margot Grey interviewed:
I found myself in a place surrounded by mist. I felt I was in hell. There
was a big pit with vapor coming out and there were arms and hands
coming and trying to grab mine.... I was terrified that these hands
were going to claw hold of me and pull me into the pit with them....
An enormous lion bounded towards me from the other side and I let
out a scream. I was not afraid of the lion, but I felt somehow he would
unsettle me and push me into that dreadful pit.... It was very hot
down there and the vapor was very hot. 42
An example from an atheist is also instructive. It comes from Howard Storm, an art history professor at North Kentucky University, who describes himself before his NDE as follows:
By society's standards, I was doing very well prior to my NDE.... I had it all. Inwardly, though, I used to think about killing myself a lot because I didn't really find joy in anything. Everything to me was an extension of my ego, and I basically liked what I could control and despised what I couldn't. I was really a very lonely and selfish man.
I had no faith in anything that couldn't be seen, touched, or felt. I believed only in the material world, and I knew with certainty it was the full extent of everything there was. I considered all religions, and all belief systems, fantasies for people to deceive themselves with. 43 On June 1, 1985, while on a trip to Paris, Storm suffered a medical emergency (a perforated small intestine) that hospitalized him. While there he dies, only to awake hearing shadowy, silhouette-like figures calling him, "Come with us." Hesitantly, he follows them on a long, seemingly endless trek through fog. As he did so, his specter-companions became increasingly aggressive, "clawing at me and biting me. And just as I'd get one off, it seemed as though five more would be back on me, clawing and pushing." He feels lost. The creatures mock him, assure him he's beyond help or hope to ever find his way. More of this tale later.
A Dantean purgatory or chill inferno, then, remains something that some NDEers have to contend with. But thus far investigators say this kind of experience constitutes the exception to the rule. As Carol Zaleski observes, modern narratives of the other world "are shaped throughout by optimistic, democratic, 'healthy-minded' principles that transparently reflect a contemporary ideology and mood." 44
IV. THE ACADEMIC DEBATE
8.A Conflictory Interpretations
Up to this point, as I said above, Catholic theologians have stayed out of the academic debate about the validity or meaning of ND)Es. The debate, which has been passionate, pits sympathizers, those at least open to philosophical and religious or spiritual explanations of the phenomenon, against the principled skeptics, those who will only accept medical, psychological and materialist explanations. The friendly psychologists, parapsychologist and medical personnel I have cited in the preceding sections belong to the former camp. The latter camp consists mostly of hard-nosed neuroscientists and orthodox Freudian psychiatrists. Given the contrary philosophic presuppositions of the two groups, it will not surprise you to learn that they are utterly polarized and give no quarter in argument. The debate has been a stand-off.
First, consider the NDE sympathizers, researchers who, if they do not exactly take otherworld journeyers at their word, are at least favorable. Most of these people are either therapists or adopt a therapeutic approach to the phenomenon -- and therein lies the problem. The actual content of near-death experience -- and whatever truth claims that might arise from it -- are not their primary concern. Their basic argument for taking NDEs seriously is that the experience has such manifest transformative effects.
These are conversion stories, testimonies to grace and ensuing metanoia. Today Betty Eadie is an active and inspiring evangelist, speaking widely throughout the nation. The once depressed and misanthropic Mellen-Thomas Benedict, now miraculously recovered from his cancer, gives workshops and practices as a psychic healer. The vicious Dannion Brinkley volunteers in hospice programs and gives passionate public speeches. "Go die with somebody!" he urges. "You are a co-creator with God."
The larger significance of NDEs, the argument goes, lies in a consistent pattern of such aftereffects. Summing up the pattern, Kenneth Ring maintains that these otherworldly returnees regularly exhibit: 1) a heightened appreciation of life that takes the form of greater responsiveness to natural beauty and the ability to focus on the present moment (without grievances about the past or worries about the future); 2) increased concern for the welfare of others; 3) lessened interest in material things, success and the need to make an impression; 4) a tendency to seek a deeper, spiritual or religious understanding of life; 5) changes in behavior that family members tend to verify. Yes, says Ring, these people generally return with greater feelings of self-worth, but this is not usually ego-inflation. Rather, he says, it takes the form of accepting themselves as they are, "which they will sometimes attribute to the tremendous sense of affirmation they received 'from the Light'." 54
As for the deeper, spiritual impact, Ring offers some generalizations. First, he says, NDEs describe themselves as "more spiritual, not necessarily more religious." Yes, they feel much closer to God than they did before, "but the formal, more external aspects of religious worship often appear to have weakened in importance." "The Light" and postmortem existence will be there for everyone at death, they believe, "regardless of one's beliefs (or lack of them) about what happens at death." Second, the otherworld travelers return, he claims, with a "greater openness to the idea of reincarnation." "It is not," he goes on, "that they find themselves ready to subscribe to a formal belief in reincarnation, but
rather that it is a doctrine that makes more sense to them than it did prior to their near-death experience." 46
Third, says Ring, near-death experience draws people to the notion "that underlying all the world's greatest religious traditions there is a single and shared transcendent vision of the Divine." This is not, he hastens to add, a naive desire for some kind of meltdown of religious diversity into a common denominator universalism; it is rather the "transcendental unity of religion" spoken of by Frithjof Schuon. 47 In other words, this is unity at the deepest reaches of each religious tradition-in effect an eschatological reality. Naively, it seems to me, Ring and many of his fellow sympathizers think that NDEers receive messages of this and the above kind directly, without interference from previous beliefs and social conditioning. Ring himself looks upon near-deathers as forming a spiritual vanguard for the world. That's right, a new age.
The skeptics do not buy it. They debunk near-death visions, first, by challenging whether these people have been clinically dead. (In a fairly large number of cases, especially those studied by Michael Sabom, this has been corroborated by medical personnel.)48 Second, they propose a variety of natural causes -- drug medications, oxygen deprivation, limbic lobe agitation, the stimulation under stress of morphine-like brain chemicals (endorphins), sensory deprivation, hallucination, depersonalization and wish-fulfillment. Just what one would expect from scientific reductionists: The poor, deluded NDEers are derided for imagining they have had a revelation. The hard truth, say the skeptics, is that the NDEers' neopeptides and neurotransmitters are out of order. Or they are just holding back the threat of inevitable doom with the barrier of fantasy. It all goes to show the enormous and enduring power of infantile wishes. Etc., etc. Neurologist Ernest Rodin applies this logic to his own ecstatic near-death experience -- which he calls "one of the most intense and happiest moments of my life" -- diagnosing it in retrospect a "toxic psychosis" induced by his oxygen-starved brain. 49
The claim, of course, that one has explained a phenomenon by reducing it to its chemical or electrical elements is an example of the genetic fallacy -- and most naturalistic accounts suffer from this defect. It is curious that scientific skeptics rarely apply this logic to ordinary experience. Certainly they know perfectly well that their own interest in the natural world, or their falling in love, is linked to brain chemistry, hormonal tides and inherited drives -- and yet they would never think of vetoing their own research and love affairs just because of these links. Why, then, would they seek to prohibit us from taking paranormal or ecstatic experience seriously? Why do the skeptics cling so to death as the last word?
I suggest that something else than the truth must be at stake here. The argument, it has been proposed by one shrewd sociological observer, is covertly between rivals for cultural power, in this case a contest between the authority of scientists and the authority of their old religious adversaries. These adversaries are replaying, like a stuck record, the old battles between the church of the ancien regime and the encyclopedists of the Enlightenment. In this particular stand-off, "death not only separates people in obvious ways, it also reveals the normally hidden or poorly recognized cultural and political agendas of various groups in any community. Experiences near death are common battlegrounds for competing social meanings and political visions." 50
V. THEOLOGICAL INVESTIGATIONS
9. Questions and Some Provisional Theological Interpretations
So what are we to make of all this from the perspective of a Catholic eschatology? The first caution to give, I think, is that the NDEers are not theological experts when they give their testimony. They come from all sectors of society, from every kind of background, but so far as I have been able to discover, there are few comparative religionists or theologians among them (at least who have come forward). NDEers tell their otherworld stories with a broad brush, using the common argot available to them, helped along by generally liberal interviewers (who give a certain slant to things) and by ghost writers. We should not expect theological niceties. They must be given slack, a loose rope.
Nonetheless, we will have questions to put. And out of courtesy to the "separated brethren," perhaps the first question ought to be the one that comes from conservative Protestants. Do these putative eye-witnesses, ask Evangelicals, eliminate the need for revelation? For grace? For a redeemer? If immortality is our natural birthright, as NDEers seem to testify, what need of the proclamation of the resurrection? What need of
Christ as "personal savior"? Fundamentalist Baptists are particularly vulnerable to these concerns because they take weekly testimonies, provided they proclaim cotidian grace of Christ, seriously indeed. They are disposed, in short, to accept testifiers as telling the truth -- and when that testimony doesn't square with the literal word of the Bible, it upsets them gravely. But behind these questions lies a theology that sets up a sharp disjunction between revelation and experience, between nature and grace, and between God and the world. Curiously, one sometimes wonders whether they get the point of their own witness to the immanence of Spirit in their lives -- or the implications of the Incarnation.
To get us started with a provisional answer to these concerns, the person to consult is Carol Zaleski, a religious studies professor currently at Smith College in Massachusetts, and one of the few theologians to take NDEs seriously. Her Harvard Ph.D. thesis, published as Otherworld Journeys (1987), is in fact a landmark on the subject of NDEs -- and in writing this paper I am much indebted to it. In her most recent book on the topic, The Life of the World to Come (1996), she neatly disposes of Oscar Cullman's famous claim that a (Hellenistic) belief in the immortality of the soul is incompatible with the Hebraic and Pauline belief in the resurrection of the body. 51 Certainly Thomas Aquinas didn't think that holding both views compromised the need for either a redeemer or revelation. And neither did the Fathers of the Church during the first seven centuries. The problem here, a very real one for many Protestants, has to do with differing conceptions of the relationship between nature and grace. Traditional Protestant notions of the total corruption of nature (massa damnata) call for a super-supernaturalism, a notion of grace (sofa gratia) as having to virtually overwhelm or repress human nature to have the desired effect. Catholicism, with its notion that grace works through reason to complete and fulfill it (beyond all expectation) will have no difficulty with a natural immortality. Thanks to Karl Rahner, we also understand now that the natural-supernatural distinction is a theoretical device useful in its place but not to be applied literalistically to the domain of practice and experience, where nature and grace converge and are all but inseparable -- as in the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures of Christ.)
The Eastern Orthodox will have even less difficulty with the idea of a natural immortality. For them, original sin is not understood as a fall from grace so much as a "denaturing" of things, a fall from nature. Consequently they view grace as a restoration of nature to its true and original splendor -- and the immortality destined for it. In principle, then, for the Church Catholic both East and West, there is no problem when NDE testimony declares that the soul or the "pneumatic body" is immortal. The assertion of a metaphysical dualism between soul and body would be another matter, but very few NDEers have been dogmatic about that. As I said, they are rarely into such niceties. Their spiritualist interpreters, of course, may have other ideas.)
Similarly, fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants tend to oppose revelation, the word of the Bible, and experience -- at least any experience that appears contrary to the Bible. Here we get closer to a Catholic concern as well. For us, too, Scripture as authoritatively interpreted by the magisterium, possesses a pre-eminent and privileged position. Personal and private revelations are no match. Still, it is worth pointing out here that, once again in principle, there is no necessary opposition between revelation and personal experience. After all, what else are the Gospels except testimony, mixing presumably early eye-witness accounts of Jesus's words and deeds with the subsequent, post-resurrection witness of the apostolic church to the power of the Holy Spirit? ("Indeed, from his fullness we have all of us received -- yes, grace in return for grace...:" Un 1:16]) In fact, who else was Jesus himself except one who testified to the truth he perceived? The New Testament, like much of the Hebrew Bible, breathes such life, is a "word of power," in great part precisely because it collects witnesses, testifiers to the experience of Spirit in the world. Shall we say then that the experience of this Spirit does not continue until our day? Surely not; our experience of the Spirit is what keeps the Bible alive-or if we fail in inspiration, that is what deadens the biblical word in the ears of other. Are NDEers an example of maintaining this spirited life? To tell, we must discern the spirits. And that brings us back to interpretations of the immortality of the soul.
As we said at the outset in reviewing Catholic eschatology, the basic concern of Catholic theologians in this whole matter will be "cheap grace." And that concern translates into three questions regarding the interpretation of NDEs: 1) Is the immortality of the soul being understood in an exclusively individualistic mode that leaves out the social dimension of salvation? 2) Is a gnostic dualism of soul and body implied, such that we are being lured into abandoning all "hope for history" that David Tracy speaks of as being a vital part of the single goal of the "fully realized kingdom of God"? 3) Do NDEs promise a saccharine, Day-Glo heaven that avoids the Cross? Is this a sweet-sounding cover-up? Another denial of fainted, guilt and death to add to all the other bargain-rate promises of eternal youth that our huckster culture puts up for sale on the supermarket counter? Are we being snuckered once again, deceived into thinking there's no cost of discipleship --t hat we can have it all at the new discount policy the heavenly host has finally decided to market in order to attract price-conscious customers like ourselves? If so, Catholic theologians will want none of it; in the United Sates, they will call the Better Business Bureau to report a fraud.
The real objection underneath Cullman's polarization of resurrection and immortality, of course, had to do with precisely this kind of fraud. It is, we have to say, a strictly contemporary concern -- the modern denial of death, the kind of etherization satirized in Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. Does a too easy belief in immortality numb us to the reality, the sting of death and thus deprive us of its revelatory function in the Christian tradition? As Zaleski and others make clear, historically there is no evidence that a "natural" immortality encouraged an evasion of the reality of death for the ancient or medieval church. If anything, death was too much with our ancestors. But for us? Despite the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and Ram Dass to bring death home to us, against the forces of medical technology and commercial funeral parlors, this is a losing battle. Cullman may have been mistaken in his historical argument, but he was not wrong to think that there's a peculiarly modern problem here for Christianity. For as I tried to show in my original overview of Catholic eschatology, confronting death serves a distinctive revelatory function for the Christian faith. In effect, anything that stands in the way of facing death -- and the death-dealing machines of the modern state and society -- will have the effect of effacing, perhaps even nullifying, what the Gospels have to disclose. This is something we will have to come back to.
But first let me outline Carol Zaleski's interesting interpretation of NDEs. If nothing else, she has put her finger on the reason NDE testimonials are so popular. And that reason isn't simply that they feed fantasies of infantile omnipotence. Something more is going on. People are not naively asking where they were before they were born or what will I be when I die. Rather, says Zaleski, they are asking: "Where am I now in relation to the north, south, east and west of the cosmos, the yesterday and tomorrow of history, the higher and lower ranks of beings?" 52 At a time of religious and general cultural fragmentation, they are looking for guidance in locating themselves within a purposeful universe.
In Otherworldly Journeys, Zaleski adopts a Kantian epistemology and a broader sense of rationality borrowed from William James. (Do these NDE visions provide "immediate luminousness . . . philosophic reasonableness, and moral helpfulness"? Do they bear fruit, "act as a lure toward truth, by leading people out of anxious, mechanical, or vicious patterns of thought and behavior"? If so, James advised, we are morally entitled to rate them as valid and go with them.) Zaleski also follows Paul Tillich in holding that theology's task is basically diagnostic. Its job, that is, is to assess the health of our symbols -- which participate in the reality they represent and provide the only way in which the transcendent comes to us. When God wants to speak to us, it would seem, God does not give us a set of abstract formulas but creates conundrums: quarks, galaxies, rhinoceroses and unfathomable human beings.
With these presuppositions made clear, Zaleski proposes that NDE visions should not be understood as giving us the literal truth, as if for once we were getting the raw, preconceptual, pre-linguistic and unequivocal "facts" about God, the soul or the other world. These eschatological visions, she argues, should be taken as acts of the religious imagination, as symbols, and evaluated not as true or false but as either vital or weak. 53 This does not entail renouncing ultimate and objective truth, merely the chimerical idea that we could ever detach our contact with this truth from language, social structure, geography and the weather. "Instead of regretting the fact that religious experience is symbolic rather than descriptive, we might rejoice that the truth empties itself into our human language and cultural forms." 54
And how do the NDE scouts stand up by Zaleski's criteria? In her estimation, their visions are vital. With caution, we are also morally entitled to trust them as reasonable. In some very real sense these people have "met death" -- and something in them has surpassed that barrier. 55
As William James once argued, just as melancholy can strip the world of value, interest and allure, so the exalted states of a conversion experience can transfigure the landscape into a thing of wonder. When joined with the person's ideals, beliefs and philosophic opinions, James said, all such "highs" shape the character of the world for us. Zaleski therefore judges that NDE visions represent legitimate acts of the imagination, essentially interior, which do what a potent symbol should do. The conversion motifs merge with the pilgrimage motifs "because the journey to the next world is actually a guide through life." 56 So rather than being a private oracle or purely personal testament, these visions have the capacity to orient us, help us get our bearings -- by endowing the cosmos with religious meaning and purpose.
Otherworldly journey narratives orient us in two ways: as works of visionary topography they provide an updated, culturally sanctioned picture of the cosmos, and as works of moral and spiritual instruction they call on us to inhabit this cosmos, by overcoming the fear or forgetfulness that makes us as insensible to life as to death. All this is the action of the religious imagination, that power that makes our ideas and ideals come to life and act upon US. 57
Now I very much doubt that such an explanation will sit well with the NDEers themselves, who probably find it patronizing. In fact I imagine them protesting that in contrast to the blighted ways in which they perceived the world before their visions, their visits to the heavenly vestibule allowed them to see things as they truly are. They weren't simply projecting. Yes, their exalted moods had something to do with it, but that was them at their most acute, at a peak state of inner being -- a being in love -- perceiving themselves, the communion of saints, the cosmos and the "energies" of the Unspeakable as they truly are. Any lover will immediately see the point. Why take truncated ordinary consciousness as normative or more reliable than a body brimming with pneuma?
I0, Truth or Consequences?
Professor Zaleski accepts that something in NDEers has survived death. In other words, she credits their testimony insofar as it tells us something about the immortality of the soul. But that, it seems to me, is an almost minor part of the good news they purport to give us. What about the rest of their narratives? Attribute that, she advises, to their religious imaginations working in overdrive, as such imaginations should work if the are to offer guidance to the rest of us. Now I find this an unsatisfactory account. The hard news is that we survive death. Those looking for more, for a vision of heaven that might transform nightmare history will be disappointed. Nonetheless, Zaleski's position -- to my thinking a somewhat individualistic one -- provides a good starting point for reflection.
The Catholic analogical imagination, insisting that we can never be literalistic about God, that we can never know the divine ousia (essence), at best only the divine "energies" or manifestations in creation, can go along with the accent on symbol. The idea that ultimate truth, as Professor Zaleski puts it, "empties itself into our language and cultural forms"-now that hits the target. But a Catholic imagination will not buy into her Kantianism, which takes back with the left hand what the right hand offers with the sentence just quoted. We take imagination more seriously than Zaleski does. Who "endows" what with what here? When Dante, guided by the light reflected in Bernard of Clairvaux's eyes, ascends to the Light and shouts "I saw . . . I saw . . . I saw" (vidi . . . vidi . . . video) three times, we acknowledge he was using the language and Ptolemaic cosmology of his time but we don't think he was gazing at his navel. (Paradiso 30.94-99) Hence we balk at the idea of turning imaginal acts -- or as we might put it, a sacramental consciousness -- into intrapsychic transactions, a monologue, perhaps, with one's interior Jungian archetypes. If these NDE visions disclose nothing more than that, Self with caps, then this is little more than sophisticated subjectivism -- a moralizing willfulness. Mrs. Zaleski has turned all of the NDEers, without discrimination, into crypto-Pelagians -- and we have to say, along with Flannery O'Connor, "The hell with it!"
Alright then, back to the drawing boards. Suppose we start again with a realistic imagination, bearing in mind all the caveats about inescapable hormonal tides, brain chemistry, language, geography, social and cultural conditioning. In short, what we want is a critical realism, not a naive one. Neither Betty Eadie nor Mellen-Thomas Benedict were empty slates upon which the Holy One wrote hieroglyphics. They brought something to their visions of the other world, a decoding manual already in place and waiting. But the point is also that they met more than their death; they met something on the other side of it -- a Light that swallowed up death, vanquished it. This is critical, the difference between an experience of grace and an experience of the projective imagination and will power. Thus the question: Where does the movement or motive originate -- in the NDEers themselves, where Zaleski primarily locates it, or in something the NDEers uniformly assert was "Other"? (Though of course they testify to a state of communion with "beings of light" and/or a supreme "Being of Light" -- they were bathed in the radiance, engulfed by it, felt it inwardly.) My point here is that I think one should beware of interpretations like Sealskin's that have to discount and denature the report of the experience in order to preserve a theory, in her case, a Kantian epistemological taboo. Don't we (academics) all know better that these people cannot be penetrating to the nouminous level of things? In another more permissive form, this is just what Zaleski criticizes the scientific reductionists for doing.
No, Catholics don't know that noumenal reality is off limits, beyond our ken. Generally, except for some of our academics, we have never bought into the Kantian veto here. In this respect we are stubbornly premodern and ornery about it, clinging to a sacramental understanding of the universe that our liturgy demands and keeps us in touch with. And what follows with regard to NDE testimonies? If the light (big or little) these people say they encountered, were surrounded and embraced by is deemed a figment of the creative imagination, we seem to miss or deny their whole point. Zaleski claims their imaginal acts serve a useful social function. They give those of us who feel lost in the cosmos a compass, a way of getting our bearings. The universe is no longer pointless, mere atoms buzzing around, a good reason for collective depression on the part of anomalous castaways on planet Earth. It has a purpose, is sacred again-and it is the NDEers who have "endowed" it with such meaning. In brief, they have bigger and better imaginations than we do. This will not do.
Science and medicine have helped people very little to deal with the human meaning of death. (That's why so many today are disillusioned with science and scientists -- one is tethered with tubes, plugged into machines. There is no gracefulness here.) The common fantasies about death's terrors haven't helped either; no, it's precisely the dread of death that has driven people, as in Tolstoy's story of Ivan Ilyich, to spend their lives serving the state or some other putatively immortal bureaucracy. Death reveals the sham of all that, the sham in other words about one's identity and one's idolatry. In fact, that's just the point: Death reveals the way a whole culture lies about itself, promises what it cannot deliver, namely immortality. Is that the noumenal, deep-down truth or not? Nothing less will do. People faced with death don't have time to waste on empty dreams.
"WE HAVE ALREADY BEEN SAVED!" Mellen-Thomas Benedict exclaims. According to our Scripture he's got that part right. "For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own-doing," says St. Paul (Eph 2:8) How Benedict and Mrs. Eadie figured the meeting with "the Light," expressed it, found images and words for it -- yes, all of that came from their respective cultural backgrounds. Perhaps because he's a Californian, Mr. Benedict's Light or fulsome Void sounds a lot like the late George Burns playing God in the film of that title. Mrs. Eadie's has the feel of an orthodox Evangelical's God, who informs her, "Before you can feel joy, you must know sorrow." Question: Were they simply responding to their neopeptides or to inner psychic movements -- or was this mind-blowing X real, other than themselves? Did they make that up? To hear from Professor Zaleski that they did destroys the very meaning of the event -- a meaning that demands that they were responding to the truth. Otherwise the whole venture is psychologized and thus undercut. What Eadie, Jung, Brinkley and even, in his way, Benedict testify to is grace, that they were somehow redeemed by this event of unearned love.
Professor Zaleski muffles that declaration. On her account, NDEers are still locked up within their skins, within their brain circuits, just as cut off as the rest of us. All that it is possible for them to see, then, is light reflected off the surfaces of things --in Kant's terms, "phenomena." Hence they are on the same merry-go-round as we are. So why should we privilege their insight above our own? Given this reading, I cannot think of a good reason. Their oracular visions ought to be discounted, or at the very least not rated more valuable than our own estimates of civilization and its discontents. Freud was right -- there's no avoiding or helping us in this matter: "ordinary unhappiness" is our lot -- and at that only if we are lucky or have a good therapist! Joseph Conrad may have toyed with the notion that "saving illusions" are justified to keep the "heart of darkness" at bay -- but is there any modern reader who doesn't think that's finally dishonest and that, however hard, we owe it to ourselves and society to face the grim truth? Living a lie, even a vital lie, doesn't pass as an ethical option for the modern sensibility. If all NDEers offer to raise our spirits is a fantasy land, we are right to turn down the sales pitch.
Common folk, maybe especially common folk, share this attitude. They don't want to be gulfed by saving illusions either. Just pause and consider what most Americans think these days of the promises of politicians! The promise of heaven isn't likely to prove any more credible unless heaven is really there -- independent of our wishes or denials or creative imaginations. (Even if it is a "there" which violates space-time and is strictly speaking unimaginable.) Some people imagine it is there; others even tell us it is sometimes palpable even here and now. Still others imagine heaven is nonsense and that physical death holds the last word-surer than taxes. The point is that so long as this argument is framed in Kantian terms, it's a stalemate and gets us nowhere. However colored their visions may be by their own preconceptions, if these NDEers haven't found some piece of the truth in an objective sense analogous to the truth that Darwin and Einstein discovered, it's not at all what the ordinary person, who doesn't operate with the Kantian prohibitions that Zaleski does, is looking for when they ask for orientation. They will not be consoled to know she has validated their own huffing and puffing; no, they want to know which way the wind out there is actually blowing. They want to know whether heaven is really there.
In her second book, Life of the World to Come, Carol Zaleski acknowledges that and embraces the spirit of hope that breathes through the monastic Liturgy of the Hours.
tI. An Afterword on the this worldly-function of Heaven
A vision of heaven that is "mere" symbol, a construct of our creative imaginations, has very little power to move us. Very little power to alter the habits of business-as-usual history. It is otherwise with a heaven that is actually there, a "too much" that is the atmosphere in which we live and breathe, that is both here-and-now and yet always beyond us. That kind of heaven, a palpable one, will make a difference in space and time.
I have three final comments to make about the testimonies of neardeath refugees, all having to do with taking them at their word. Or very nearly so.
First, neither Darwin nor Einstein were empty slates when they made their discoveries. Like the NDEers, they brought preconceptions or hypotheses with them; their discoveries, in other words were theory-laden from the get-go. The discoveries of NDEers cannot in fairness be held to a higher standard. Granted, visits to the otherworld, if it exists, cannot be replicated at will and thus tested by field studies or in a laboratory like a scientific theory can be. In this sense NDE reports elude ready verification. (The thought of a University's biology and religious studies departments collaborating to recruit student volunteers to replicate death and resuscitation -- in order to verify which department had it right about an afterlife -- tickles the imagination, of course. What would the "control group" be, do you suppose?) In any case, after-death reports cannot be disqualified on the basis that preconception and cultural influences are at work in the reports they bring back to us.
Second, remember this: The experience to which Eadie, Benedict and Brinkley witness overthrew at least some of the expectations they brought with them. Eadie was desperate to buzz for that nurse before she passed out because her upbringing, in part by Catholic nuns, had led her to anticipate that death would bring her face to face with a condemnatory Judge. Nothing like that happened. Brinkley, too, expected harsh rebuke, knew he deserved it and instead got the surprise of his life -- forgiveness. The misanthropic Benedict was simply stunned by how beautiful we are "in our essence," when seen in "the Light."
Howard Storm doesn't expect the foggy hell that he finds himself in either. But for him, however, the bigger shock is what happens when those "clawing" creatures drive him nearly to despair.
It was essentially an atmosphere of darkness, fear, pain, and utter loneliness. So at this point, I said to myself, Pray to God. But I said, Hey, I don't pray. I don't do that. And the voice inside once again said, Pray to God. So I went like this: "The Lord is my shepherd, makes me walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . ." Then these creatures all around just went into a frenzy . . . "Cut that out. What do you think you are doing. You are such a coward, there is no God, nobody to help you." . . . Then a most unusual thing happened. I heard something in my own voice that I remembered from Sunday School. I began to sing a little song, "Jesus loves me, Jesus loves . . " And all of a sudden, and I don't know why, I really wanted to believe that. I wanted to cling to that.
Then I just screamed out into the darkness, "Jesus, please just save me." I screamed this out with everything I had, and then I saw, way off in the darkness, the tiniest little star, like a comet or a meteor, getting brighter and brighter, coming toward me like a rocket. . .Finally, it came right up to me and its radiance was all around me and through me. Then I rose up, not by my own effort, but by the force of the light . . of that place. And I saw this very, very plainly. I saw all my wounds, all my tears, all my brokenness just melt away, so that I became whole again in this great radiance.
I cried and cried and cried and cried. I was crying because I was feeling things I'd never felt before in my life. And I knew that this radiance knew me, knew me better than my mother knows me, or my father knows me, my wife knows me. It conveyed that it loved me in a way that I can't express . . . 58
As others did, Storm reviewed his life ("sad, pretty manipulative...nauseating") in the presence of love, and the light beings with him volunteered to answer any questions he had. "I was never in heaven," he says. "I never saw God. I was up in the far, far suburbs, but it was full of beauty and love."
My third comment: There is hope for history here. If we pay attention to what NDEers actually report rather than to our theories about them, Kantian or otherwise, it makes a big difference. So far as I have been able to observe, near-death witnesses are not escapists. A major distinction has to be drawn between what they tell us of the other world (blissful) and what they say about this one (miserable). They do not deny the reality of death. Nor do they deny the wretched state of the world. They are perfect realists about such things and are not pandering to any illusions we might have about how good things are. Quite the opposite, it is the perspective of heaven that makes them realize how misdirected and a ruinous things are here. With heaven as a fulcrum, they see this more clearly than ever, without blinkers -- the hypocrisy and sham of their previous lives, the way in which "the system" caters to our illusions about what will make us worthy of love -- power, fame and the credit of a great name. (On being resuscitated, like Carl Jung, the returnees often report a period of severe depression for exactly this reason. Mrs. Eadie reports the same.)
The point is the social distance the otherworld creates for NDEers. They are newly open to self-knowledge -- to judgment. And what makes it possible? What allows Dannion Brinkley to drop his own tough-guy cover-up, the masks of the bully, of the trained assassin, the secret agent all the defences against his own vulnerability that he'd developed over a lifetime? What empowers him to let go of this masquerade? What enables him, finally, to see the gangs he tyrannized over, the Pentagon and the Marines and the White House Iran-Contra schemers he served, as so many frauds? (Or does he? I'm not entirely sure on this last one.) What impelled Howard Storm to judge himself so sternly, to see through his own facade to the "very lonely and selfish man" he was underneath? "Everything I aimed at or wished for or thought," says the great Carl Jung, "fell away, was stripped from me." Jung alone of those I have cited in this paper does not explicitly mention what all the others do -- that it was the radiance of the love they felt that made possible the shedding of defense mechanisms. They were all embraced, penetrated to their depths, by an unearned love. Even the Pelagian Benedict. Not every ND)E case testifies to this effulgence of love, just as not everyone goes through an examination of conscience -- and it would be interesting to see if there is a correlation or coincidence here. What is clear from the testimonies I have read, however, is that this experience of being embraced by light and love is the precondition for facing the naked truth about oneself There is no need for masks and cover-up when, as we said at the outset, the fundamental question, "Am I loved?" is palpably answered, when the whole cosmos and God engulfs one in the reply. The truth, someone said, will make you free.
That the same experience of unconditional love makes social criticism possible is, I think, equally evident. The reason people are unwilling to criticize certain institutions -- whether it be the nation, the government, a corporation, a school or the church -- hinges on a simple fact, that we have sacrificed our identities to them. They become the guarantors of our self-worth, the condition of our possibility, the answer to our sense of nothingness in the great cosmos. By serving them, earning credit from them, borrowing power and authority from their illusory permanence, we imagine, once again, that we prove our worth, show that we count, are somehow invulnerable where so many others who do not have our connections are not. The institution we serve, from which we draw our strength and authority, has become a god, an idol -- and to show it irreverence or laugh at it in any way might elicit retribution, expulsion into outer darkness, a return to the nothingness with which we began the great climb to the top. So we hang on, dig in, pay the price, get our rewards and perks. The trade-off, of course, is that, we are not free to criticize -- because, we fantasize, there is no other place to go. Idols paralyze, deprive us of voice, turn us to stone -- and thus assure that the present arrangement continues. There will be no needed social change (or if it comes, it will come destructively, replacing one tyranny with another). Approaching death reveals the sham, the fraud. It doesn't work, was all for nothing. Become empty, no-thing, the Buddhists advise -- and they are right. They would have us die to our idolatries before the physical end -- so that we might start living here and now
Many NDEers, it seems to me, have seen something similar "void that is full of energy" as Mellen-Thomas Benedict put it. But for their vision of heaven, the love they have bathed in, they would be prone to turn into the worst cynics about this world. But they have literally been saved from that --by a heavenly vision of possibility, of what might be, could be and perchance will be "on earth as it is in heaven" -- if only the rest of us were touched by the love that touched them. The once disillusioned Benedict sees a "mandala of human souls," realizes "how beautiful we all our in our essence" -- and so now cannot allow himself the luxury of giving up on the human race. Heaven, as we said at the outset, gives these people critical distance on this society, gives them leverage to move it, gives them hope and the sense of humor that goes with one who now sees through the tragedy of our lives to the comedy underneath.
If too many NDE testimonials come across in an individualistic, "Jesus Saves (me, me)" way and fail to exhibit the social implications, the explanation, I think, has to do with the community of memory and hope (or the lack thereof) into which they reinsert themselves. However potent the otherworld visitation may have been, they don't, after all, jump out of their social skin when they return to planet Earth. They take up where they left off or make new connections with familiars. And in many cases that means reconnecting to a community or church that has very little in the way of social teaching, and thus provides poor soil in which to plant heaven-sent seeds. Mrs. Eadie encountered a whole industrial city with garden suburbs in her heavenly tour, a communion of saints and angels that seemed anything but passive bystanders in the stands of a celestial stadium -- an ideal city. "It was important that I understand that we all assisted in created our conditions here," she says. So different from Lenin's abstract ideal city of terror, which he proceeded to shove down Russian throats. But I suspect Mrs. Eadie does not belong to a church that will help her develop and apply what she saw.
Need I say more? The Catholic Church could show the way -- by embracing the Light to which near-death witnesses testify.
I am willing to bet, in any event, that it was the Light that got NDE imaginations going and not the reverse, their imaginations that got the Light going. In their own words, that's what ND)E testimonies say. Among other things, that's a gift for theologians --a "live one" as hunters say. Where would theology be without testimonies, witnesses to the BIG TRUTH they dryly wrestle with? Such events inject the juice of experience, however much clotted by the recipient's background and preconceptions, into a tradition otherwise in danger of seeming purely speculative or, worse, a bloodless argument about an endless succession of reader responses to texts that grow out of other texts. God save us from the scribes who only know texts -- and never pause to listen to witnesses. God save the witnesses who tell us that it is "from his fullness" that they-and we -- "have all received, grace upon grace" an. 1:16).
1 Bloom, Harold, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, p. 37.
2 Eadie, Betty, Embraced by the Light. New York: Banrarn, 1994, p. 31.
3 Ibid., p. 41.
4 Ibid., p. 44-45
6 Ibid., p. 8 1. 7 Ibid., p. 93. 8 Ibid., p. 113.
9 Zaleski, Carol, Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modem Times. New York: Oxford University Press. 1987, p. 186.
10 Hellwig, Monika K., "Eschatology," in Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives, edited by Francis Schussler Fiorenza & John P. Galvin. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991, pp. 349-372, 350.
11 Ibid., p. 359.
12 Tracy, David. "God of History, God of Psychology," in Reincarnation or Resurrection?, Concilium 1993/ 5, edited by Hermann Haring & Johann-Baptist Metz. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993, p. 103.
13 Ibid., p. 101.
14 Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996, pp. 73-94. See also his chapter on the effectiveness with which early Christians dealt with urban chaos in general, pp. 147-162.
15 Ibid., p. 88-91.
16 Sachs, John R., "Resurrection or Reincarnation? The Christian Doctrine of Purgatory," in Reincarnation or Resurrection? Concilium 1993/5, ed. by Hermann Haring & Johann-Baptist Metz. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993, 81-87, esp. 8~85. See also John S. Dunne, C.S.C., The City of the Gods: A Study in Myth and Mortality. New York: Macmillan, 1965, esp. pp. 217-231.
17 Russell, Jeffrey Burton, A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 188~189. Unlike modern Protestant theology, Catholic theology, which follows the patristic attitude in this respect, has not regarded a "natural" immortality of the soul as being incompatible with the Hebrew tradition of relying upon God's promise of resurrection: 'Those who sleep in the dust of earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt"
(Dan. 12. 2). On this point, see Jeffrey Burton Russell, A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 18-63.
18 Ibid., p. 187.
19 Becker, Ernest, Escape from Evil. New York: The Free Press, 1975, passim. See also Becker's companion book to this one, The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press, 1973, passim.
20 Bailie, Gil, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads. New York: Crossroad, 1995, p. 88 passim.
21 Cf. Kellehear, Allan, Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 100-115.
22 Moody, Raymond A, Jr., Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon--Survival of Bodily Death. New York: Bantam Books, 1976, p. 5.
23 Gallup, George Jr., with William Proctor, Adventures in Immortality. New York: McGraw hill, 1982.
24 Cited in Phillip L. Berman, The Journey Home: What Near-Death Experiences and Mysticism Teach Us About the Gift of Life. New York: Pocket Books, 1996, p. 50.
25 Neihardt, John G., Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. New York: Washington Square Press, 1959 (1932), pp. 17-39
26 For a collection of ancient and medieval examples, see Carol Zaleski, Otherworld Journeys, pp. 11-94.
27 Turner, Victor, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 197.7, pp. 95-130.
28 Ibid., pp. 29-30
29 Moody, Life After Life, pp. 21-107.
30 Cited in The Near Death Experience: A Reader, edited by Lee W. Bailey and Jenny Yates. New York/London: Routledge, 1996, p. 29.
31 Moody, Life After Life, pp. 21~22.
32 Jung, C. G., Memories, Dreams, Reflections, recorded and edited by Amiela Jaffe. Rev. edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1965, pp. 289-291.
33 ibid., p. 292.
34 For a persuasive argument that the basic social meaning of NDEs can be found in popular stories like Margery Williams's The Velveteen Rabbit, see Allan Kellehear, Experiences Near Death, pp. 142-154. Kellehear de-sensationalizes NDEs by finding broad social meaning in them. In the process he presents an
alternative to the medical and religious meanings.
35 Benedict, 'Through the Light and Beyond," in Bailey & Yates, eds., The Near-Death Experience: A Reader, pp.41-42.
36 ibid., p. 43.
37 ibid., p. 42
38 ibid., pp. 44-48, 50-51.
39 Brinkley, Dannion, with Paul Perry, Saved By the Light: The True Story of a Man Who Died Twice and the Profound Revelations He Received. New York: Villard Books, 1994, pp. 3-21.
40 ibid.. p. 20.
41 Greyson, Bruce, and Nancy Evans Bush, "Distressing Near-Death Experiences." in Bailey & Yates, eds. The Near-Death Experience: A Reader, PD. 207-230. , 219-20.
42 Cited by Sogyal Rinpoche, "The Near-Death Experience: A Staircase to Heaven," in Ibid., p. 171.
43 Cited by Phillip L. Berman, The Journey Home, p. 85. Cf. also pp. 84-91. For a parallel "guided tour of hell" triggered by LSD, see John Lilly, The Center of the Cyclone: An Autobiography of Inner Space. New York: Julian Press, 1972, pp. 87-88.
44 Zaleski, Carol, Otherworld Joumeys, p. 189.
45 Ring, Kenneth, "Near-Death Experiences: Implications for Human Evolution and Planetary Transformation," in Bailey & Yates, eds. The Near Death Experience: A Reader, pp. 187-88.
46 Ring, Ibid., p. 189.
47 Ring, Ibid., p. 189, 190-95. See also Frithhof Schuon, The Transcendental Unity of Religions, trans. Peter Townsend. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1975 (1948).
48 Sabom, Michael B. Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
49 Zaleski, Otherworld Journeys, p. 167.
50 Kellehear, Allan, Experiences Near Death, p. vii.. See esp. pp. 119-154 for a full and persuasive presentation for this thesis with regard to the reaction of neuroscientists in particular.
51 Zaleski, The World to Come: Near-Death Experience and Christian Hope. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 11-17, 2X-30. The reference to Oscar Cullman is to his Ingersoll Lecture of 1955, in Krister Stendahl, ea., Immortality and Resurrection: Death in the Western World: Two Conflicting Currents of Thought. New York: Macmillan, 1965, p. 50. The best guidebook to patristic eschatology, Zaleski suggests, is Brian E. Daley, The Hope of the Early Church. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1991.
52 Otherworld Journeys, p. 201
53 Ibid., p. 191.
54 Ibid., pp. 199, 195.
55 Ibid., p. 198.
56 ibid., p. 202.
57 ibid., p. 203.
58 Cited in Phillip L. Berman, The Journey Home, pp. 87-89. If one is tempted to consider NDE testimony overly positive and "healthy minded," I would remind the reader that throughout much of the history of Christianity, the ordinary preaching of the Church was overly negative and fear-ridden. "No civilization," writes historian Jean Delurneau, "had ever attached as much importance to guilt and shame as did the Western world from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries." See Delumeau, Sin and Fear The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990, p. 557 et passim. Against this background, it is also possible to consider NDEs as a welcome correction, a reaffirmation that "where sin abounds, grace cloth more abound" (Rom. 5:20).