Earthen Vessels

Contributed by: Rev. Frank Pennington, follow Rev. Pennington at his weekly blog Frank on Faith

I have been reading a book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. The book, which is a New York Times best seller, chronicles one person’s vivid perception of God and the afterlife. The interesting aspect of the book by Eben Alexander, M.D. is that he is a Harvard trained medical doctor. I offer this thought because the common medical assertion has been that near death experiences are the result of chemical and electrical responses to the human brain shutting down following extreme trauma. The leap to a theological assertion has been left to religion and to matters of faith. I suspect what has made this book so popular is the fact that Alexander is an academic neurosuageon. Most likely if Eben Alexander had been a member of the clergy, the book would not have had the appeal because clergy are expected to believe that there is a “heaven.” I believe that there is the reality of the survival of human consciousness beyond physical death. My beliefs are shaped by my faith systems but not sourced in them. Theology attempts to explain in understandable terms, the character of faith but theology is a human construct limited by human perceptions. In ancient times theology was shaped by the belief in a three tiered universe. Since the earth was flat, heaven was understood as being “up there” and “hell” was “down there.” Many of us still use phrases such as “she is looking down on us from heaven” suggesting that “heaven” is quite literally “in the heavens.” We still embrace the idea that human consciousness is the sum of natural human functions which are biological. When we die consciousness goes away because we do. Dr. Alexander states that his near death experience shows a reality that consciousness is not limited to human biology but is universal. The human body is the steward of consciousness so our consciousness transcends what we now accept as living or being alive. Where do we go when we die? Theoretical physics theorizes there has been no new matter created since the “big bang” so we are all star dust and to star dust we will return. There is no “law” that mandates that what we call our consciousness is just the result of body chemistry. Most religions claim that “the soul” is not limited to our definitions of a life time. Could it be that our awareness allows us to intuit a sensibility that is far more expansive than we can know on our daily human plane of existence? As I read Alexander’s book I can’t let go of the sense of the skeptic in me in that his descriptions of “heaven” seem all to shaped by a western/European worldview. I suspect if I had a conversation with Dr. Alexander he would confess to the limits of language but emphatically stress his experience. I suspect a Harvard trained neurosurgeon would not casually write a book such as Proof of Heaven. I suggest you read Eben Alexander’s book beginning not with the position of a pronounced skepticism but with the question of what would this person have to gain by writing it. In Christian theology there is the statement that we are all mere “earthen vessels.” Perhaps the capacity that we have to love and to hope and to show mercy are gifts that we are given to cherish and to manifest through our mortal lives but transcend our physical deaths. Perhaps we are quite literally “vessels” for an all too short period of time but the qualities of that for which we are vessels live on for eternity. The universe—and theoretical physics have theories that there are many universes out there—is much more than star dust. It is mind expanding to think that we might be “star dust” with the capacity to meaningfully reflect upon itself and reflect for all eternity.

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