Immortal dreams

November 20, 2012
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The Fountain of Eternal Life statue in Cleveland. Photo: Some rights reserved by Erik Daniel Drost.

"Pragmatism,” G. K. Chesterton said, “is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.” So too, faith is a matter of human desires; and one of the first of human desires is to be in contact with genuine reality. People of faith don’t want to live—or die—in a fool’s paradise. They want the real paradise or nothing. If it should turn out that our belief in the life to come has been an illusion, most of us would rather sink into nonbeing than beguile our final hours with hallucinatory dreams.

We are in a curious and puzzling situation, therefore, in which the hope for immortality is criticized in some circles as unbiblical and sub-Christian, yet affirmed in others as a matter of established empirical fact. A recent, widely publicized case is that of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, survivor of a harrowing brush with death.

Newsweek picked up Dr. Alexander’s story in advance of the publication of his best-selling book, Proof of Heaven. The cover story, “Heaven Is Real,” coincided with an announcement of the imminent demise of the print edition of Newsweek. (Is there a heaven for newsweeklies that have seen better days?) What we learn from the Newsweek story and the book is that Dr. Alexander, stricken by a rare form of bacterial meningitis, fell into a deep coma in which his cortex, as he tells us, shut down—and awoke seven days later with memories of a profound visionary experience. Immediately losing his sense of individual selfhood, he found himself immersed in a synesthetic, holographic vision in which millions of butterflies, heavenly sounds, soaring angels, and a young woman of transcendent beauty all entered into an intricate pattern whose meaning was unconditional love: “You are loved and cherished. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.”

Needless to say, this story is at best a glimpse, not a proof. Such visions can flood the mind in the moments of returning consciousness, or in dependence upon residual cortical function (as recent studies of patients in a persistent vegetative state would suggest). A healthy skepticism is in order and a turn to the deeper reasons for belief in the promise of eternal life.

But perhaps you’ve heard it said that it is improper for Christians to speak of the soul’s immortality at all. In that case, a distinguo is in order. On the one hand, there must be a principle of continuity between the living human person and the person who has passed beyond our sight on the journey toward final resurrection; that principle of continuity we call soul. On the other hand, Christians do not think of the soul as a fifth essence stored in the body and released at death; Christians do not think of the discarnate soul as the complete self; and Christians do not think of the soul’s immortality as natural or intrinsic; it is a sheer gift.

The Christian view of the soul is actually quite different from the Platonic or the Hindu or the Gnostic or the Cartesian or the New Age; it is more creaturely, more implicated in the life of the body, more dependent upon God, more vulnerable to sin. Christians know that the soul’s journey will not be complete until we are raised body and soul as the living unity that God designed us to be.

This is an understanding we share with Jews and Muslims, who in their classical traditions affirm both immortality and resurrection. There are hints in the Hebrew Bible: “If a man die, shall he live again?” asks the book of Job. “All the days of my service I would wait, till my release should come. Thou wouldest call, and I would answer thee; thou wouldest long for the work of thy hand” (RSV). It is this call from our Maker and Redeemer that awakens us from death, not some inherent excellence and indestructibility in our souls. And I am reminded by my son John of a wise saying of al-Ghazali to the effect that the combination of both—immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body—is what makes the promised resurrection “the most perfect of all things.”

Perhaps it is significant that Dr. Alexander sensed his identity dissolving as he touched the fringe of death. Our personal identity is not a solid, metaphysical fact we can measure, but a mystery hidden with God. Until the last veil is lifted, solid evidence will elude us; only the total pattern of redemption is strong enough to bear the weight of our hope.


Letter from Owen Norment

Carol Zaleski’s comments on Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven (“Immortal dreams,” Nov. 28) offers a faithful, cautionary note about uncritical acceptance of the book’s every assertion. Perhaps “proof” in the book’s title and the assurance given to Dr. Alexander that “there is nothing you can do wrong” are overdrawn.

But Zaleski is too quickly dismissive of the neurosurgeon’s account, as in her suggestion that Alexander’s visionary “near death experience” (NDE) may simply have been due to “residual cortical function” (a view that Alexander quite effectively discounts) and in her apparent relegation of interest in such phenomena to Platonic or Hindu or Gnostic or New Age perspectives.

In fact, a deep reservoir of anecdotal and scholarly attestation of NDE phenomena exists--from physicians, clinical psychologists, psychoanalysts and independent researchers, as well as people in pastoral vocations and religious studies. Too often theologians ignore or reject such material outright.

The story of the universe spans some 15 billion years, the earthly human story some 2 million. The universe is exactly that: a singular whole, reducible en masse to interactive particles/waves of energy. Some researchers  posit that consciousness itself (might we say “spirit”) is the subliminal energy creative and unitive of the whole. 

It is no longer adequate theologically to try to encapsulate this incomprehensible magnitude and mystery within the Christian mythos of creation, fall into sin, death, redemption and resurrection. We are not “fallen” in any but a metaphorical sense; our lives are part and parcel of cosmic oneness. Salvation is not rescue from an unintended demise (though surely sin and sorrow are tragically real in this life and divine grace indispensable), but rather our vibrant participation in a “journey into wholeness” through life and death and the life beyond. So immortality is an acceptable postulate of faith, based not on our “inherent excellence” of soul or on some assured proof but on a vision of the nature of consciousness and the telos (goal) of life’s process itself.  

Owen Norment

Greensboro, N.C.

Proof of Heaven and NDEs

As a retired neurologist and now pastor and chaplain, I think Dr. Zaleski's assessment of Alexander's book was right on target. Alexander offers ample testimony that something life- changing has happended to him but nothing more. He spends a good deal of print extolling his training and successes which are noteworthy. But Dr. Alexander's brain never went away nor did all of his brain activity.Also Dr. Alexander seems oblivious to the body of literature on NDEs which includes two books by Zaleski. The most bothersome aspect of the booming "heaven" business is that so many people, even church folks, think it is "gospel." To look at what scripture really says or does not say about heaven may prove to be puzzling or distrubing for some. 

Dr. Alexander, along with his publisher, have helped to prove once again that books about heaven and NDE's are highly profitable. At one point this year there were three "Heaven" books on the Top Ten shelf at Barnes and Noble. I have read these books lately as I find It helps to know what is on the reading lists of staff and patients. Amazing but not miraculous.

Bill Holmes

Louisville, KY