Conversations on Near Death Experiences

Contributed by:
Frank Pennington
United Church of Christ

Institute Advisory Committee Member

On a recent autumn Sunday, I had the opportunity to facilitate a small group as a follow-up to a lecture by Eben Alexander M.D. in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. Alexander is the author of a New York Times best seller titled Proof of Heaven. As the joke goes: none of us will get out of this life alive! Dr. Alexander makes an anecdotal case for the survival of human consciousness beyond what we know in our perception as physical or bodily death. Proof of Heaven has proven to be quite controversial which is no surprise since there has been a history of western thought and “hard” science in particular dismissing any conceptualization of “God” or an “afterlife.” At least three difficulties abide with this pattern of thinking. First, our perceptions of “God” or “the afterlife” have been profoundly conditioned by what have become the popular but simplistic “definitions” of these concepts. A Russian astronaut went into space and glibly pronounced that he failed to see God. His dismissal was based on the narrow belief that heaven is quite literally “up there.” In reality, the image of “heaven” being “up there” is grounded in a primitive understanding of the earth as flat, with “heaven” being literally above and “hades” or “hell” being beneath us; these short-sighted and glib dismissals are broken.

A second difficulty has to do with our cultural “sophisticated” understanding of science as being limited to that which is determined or defined by our five senses. When we offer a disclaimer such as “that doesn’t make any sense,” we usually mean that something doesn’t stack up to what can be measured by the five senses. This reductionist, shallow thought pattern dismisses why music moves the heart, why we laugh at irony, or weep at the loss of loved ones. We are about to experience the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy and I dare to offer that our deep emotional reactions to that tragic loss could not be accurately measured in a scientific laboratory. In other words, we seem to be far greater than the chemical, electrical, and biological sum of our individual parts. Albert Einstein was by no means an orthodox religionist but he strongly defined the presence and vitality of mystery in life.

A third difficulty resides in the fact that questions about what consciousness means are intrinsic to the human (and perhaps not just human) search for meaning and our place in the universe. These questions become all the more complicated as quantum physics probes the existence of multiple universes and the qualities and behavior of dark matter. Simply, we aren’t in Kansas any more . . . our perceptions of reality are expanding and it isn’t just about what’s in those mushrooms!

On that autumn Sunday at Chestnut Hill College, we welcomed a gathering of people who would rather probe the dynamic intricacies of consciousness than watch the Eagles pull of an exciting win (yea!). The Monday morning papers in Philly were ecstatic about the victory but the victory will not affect those who were listed on the obituary pages or those with profoundly damaged lives because of the harsh weather in the Midwest. It seems that existence is always experienced in context. The problem with this is that we too often limit our context and range of thinking to the immediate and to what is close to us.

Well, is there a place called “heaven”? The problem is that many of our “religious” questions and yearnings have transcended the glib responses of time and space. When I was a rowdy adolescent in my prime, the last place which had any appeal for me was a “heaven” in which we sat all day playing our harps on billowy clouds. And I found comical, even at an early age, a “devil” with horns and with a pointy tail and a pitch fork in hand poking at my sins.

In the classic 1960s film “Alfie,” there is the song with the line, “What’s it all about Alfie, is it just for the moment we live . . . ?” The song is used throughout the movie to mirror the futility of a moment to moment existence because there seems to be little meaning in the short view. Our limited understandings of heaven go out of style but the existential pull of the surrounding questions are ever with us.

Will I survive this “vale of tears”? I believe I will and I am not alone. “Heaven” for me at this time is a consciousness question and not about place. When Jesus was asked about “heaven” and how earthly marriage might work there he implied that to frame the question that way missed the point. The renowned scientist John Wheeler observed, “Physics is a ‘magic window’. It shows us the illusion that lies behind reality and the reality behind illusion.” What is reality? I believe it is fair to say that we see through a glass darkly no matter how we look.

The philosopher William James observed, “At the bottom, the whole concern of religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe.” Quantum physics posits the theory that the universe is expanding; the question for us is whether or not our minds are expanding as well. In the 1970s a popular way of thinking was that “God is dead!” Certainly, the “gods” of our narrow thinking are dead. What we need is to develop an awareness of consciousness not reduced to the five senses but growing and, if we allow for it, maturing.

Father Giovanni (1513) said, “. . . we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home.” To be a pilgrim is not a bad thing and to acknowledge that some things are unknown is not bad either. This past Sunday afternoon instead of watching the Eagles beat the Redskins, a group of pilgrims gathered to probe what can be perceived within the “magic window” and beyond. The bottom line, maybe, is that we are pilgrims wending through unknown territory, home.