Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world, can alter.
What set me off again
Before I began blogging I had a massive interest in the whole issue of near-death experiences (NDEs). I bought and read a wide range of books on the subject as well as watching whatever came on television. My first sequence of blog posts was centred around the topic.
When I was in Haifa recently on a three day visit to the Bahá’í holy places, I was talking to someone in the Pilgrim Centre near the Shrine of the Báb. We strayed into the topic of the next world and what it might be like. She wondered whether there were places of learning there, schools and universities of the afterlife so to speak. I said I remembered reading some such descriptions in one of the books I had on the subject. I promised to look for it when I got back and send her the information.
When I got back to Hereford I went through the highlighted passages in the books I had read and found nothing. I took one last familiar book down from the shelf, one which I was convinced I had also read. The cover shows a figure walking down a corridor towards a light, an image I had looked at many times. The book was called Religion, Spirituality & the Near-Death Experience. I opened it expecting it to be full of purple and orange highlights just as the other books were. Nothing. Zilch. Blank apart from the print of the text itself. I simply couldn’t believe at first that I hadn’t read it, so I started to dip into it. No bells of familiarity started ringing. Even though the inside cover said, in what was definitely my own writing, that I had bought it in February 2003, I had never read a single word of it.
That settled it. I started reading it more or less straightaway.
Pinning it down
Mark Fox was the author. His book covers many aspects of this subject in what seems to me now the most thorough treatment of the subject I have read.
He describes his two main concerns as follows (page 6):
- One is the concern simply to present an informed overview of some of the most important research to have arisen out of and around the field of near-death studies in its almost thirty-year history and to present it to a theologically and philosophically oriented audience for whom, I suspect, some of it will appear an almost total surprise . . .
- A second major concern of this book is to go beyond a simple overview, however: a great many questions posed by the NDE demand answers which theologians and philosophers have not yet provided, although they are in a good position to do so.
I don’t intend to tackle all those in this sequence of posts. Instead I would like to focus on just one main aspect in some detail, sketching in bits of the rest where necessary.
The main aspect I want to consider is the question ‘What exactly are we dealing with here?’
There is much in this book that is relevant to this question. He looks at the various claims that have been made for what should be considered the core elements of the experience. He also deals at some length with the issue of whether what we have are simply narratives from which it is impossible to derive an accurate picture of the experience itself.
While this constitutes the spine of any discussion of this topic, it inevitably involves also dealing with another intriguing question. Are NDEs, events by definition closely linked with death, the only experiences that share whatever these core elements might be?
There is another related issue as well that cannot be ignored. Even when you think you have pinned down an element – and the ones I’ll look at in most detail are the ‘being of light’ and the ‘tunnel’ – what exactly are we talking about?
I’ll end the sequence of posts looking at the effects of an NDE or similar event on the lives of those who had these experiences and at some of Fox’s closing remarks on the subject; they can hardly be called conclusions much as I would have liked to hear that the evidence he looks at has placed the matter beyond all reasonable doubt.
From the very beginning people wrestled with what these elements were. Ron Moody in Life After Life listed 15 items including ineffability, a buzzing noise, the dark tunnel, being out of the body, meeting others, the life review, the border or limit and the being of light (page 16). Ken Ring distilled these to five (page 31): a feeling of peace, separation from the body, entering the darkness, seeing the light and entering the light.
Hampe, a Lutheran pastor, had independently been covering the same ground at about the same time (page 56). He came to somewhat different but not contradictory conclusions about what was ‘core’:
Overall, Hampe discerned three characteristics to the unfolding experience of dying in To Die Is Gain: the ‘escape of the “self”’ (akin to an out-of-body experience), a “life panorama” (akin to what later became known within near-death studies as the “life review”) and an ‘expansion as the self’ in dying which includes a form of enhanced consciousness . . . .
Fox considers Hampe’s work ‘unjustly neglected’ (page 61) and has some interesting points to make about what he regards as its continuing significance:
Hampe was the first, therefore, to consider the implications of such experiences for our evaluation of dualism, the first to consider such experiences in detail in the light of Biblical teaching, the first to suggest that such experiences may be used therapeutically with the dying and bereaved, and the first to posit the possibility that such experiences may have enormous implications for theologians more generally grappling with the problem of the meaning of death.
The problem of defining the core elements of the experience does not end there. What if we do not accept the accounts of these experiences at face value? That is the focus of the next post.