I have been reading quite a bit about evidence for what we Christians believe, namely the immortality of the soul. When we see death, it looks so final, so hopeless, so irreversible. The absence of a departed loved one seems so absolute that even a believer can have doubts and echo the ideas put about by materialist atheists.
One such idea, hiding behind science, is the “near death experience” being the product of chemical and electrical reactions in the dying brain, but that once dead, that person will no longer exist. However devoutly we believe, we can all have doubts. I certainly often do coming from a highly rational and scientific background.
Here is a video of a woman who had a very special kind of operation on her brain. To do this, the surgeons needed to “flatline” her, a degree of anaesthesia far more profound than usually used for surgical operations. The patient had truly to be clinically dead whilst maintained in a state from which she could be revived. Modern medicine has made incredible advances in this field, and new ethical problems arrive when people formerly assumed to be dead are still revivable.
This lady had an operation to remove an aneurysm.The surgeons had to lower her body temperature extremely low, stop her heart, drain the blood out of her brain, a hairsbreadth short of killing her.
After the operation and her return into her body, the patient was able to describe the surgical instruments used (which she did not see before the operation) and relate things the surgeons said during the operation, including technical terms she did not understand. People under a normal anaesthetic, let alone this degree of clinical death, do not have any consciousness. Naturally, all the vital parameters were monitored during the operation.
The only explanation for this was that the patient’s soul did not depend in any way on brain activity, which was measured as totally absent. I find this reassuring, and really helpful in bolstering up our faith, trust in God and hope – both for our departed loved ones and when facing our own inevitable death.
One of the main difficulties I have with near death experiences is that their content often contradicts the Christian faith. I recently watched a video about a Neurosurgeon or some such thing who had a near death experience and is now pedaling transcendental meditation. The content of his experience had no relation to what Christians believe, yet I found the interview on a Christian site. If fact most of the near death experiences I have read and I have read a great many can be used as an argument against Christianity. These things lead more to a Gary Zukoff view of the after life then a Christian one.
This is something we have to live with. Either the claims of near-death experiences are all fraudulent and especially concocted to contradict strict Christian orthodoxy, or the reality is greater than Christian orthodoxy alone.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Shakespeare, Hamlet (1.5.166-7). It all makes me think of Plato’s Cave!
I’m more or less, at least tentatively, with Vince on this one.
I think it takes a great deal of (perhaps misguided) faith to assume that any of these “near-death” experiences actually reflect a reality. What are they really? They are the product of a brain under a physical stress, or perhaps of a mind whose anchor to the physical is compromised. I can’t find any reason to assume that a thinking process thus challenged is any more reliable than the everyday thought experience. Could this not be similar to the process of dreaming, in which real world experiences and perceptions are processed in a somewhat random manner to produce a pattern that may or may not be anchored in what actually is? Of whatever may lie beyond this life, we really know very little. There are no details in Christian revelation, however much elaboration may be presented in the often conflicting testimonies, nor can any reliable information be extracted from the imaginings of a mind in crisis. There is no need to assume that “the claims of near-death experiences are all fraudulent and especially concocted to contradict strict Christian orthodoxy” than that (as I was once told by an overly literalistic young man) all fiction is no more than lies, but neither is there any need to accept any of these accounts as reflecting anything whatever of a factual nature.
I think the term fraudulent leads us in the wrong direction here. I believe that people really have had these experiences. Just as I believe that the many schizophrenics I work with really experience their hallucinations. They are real within their mental processes, as real as anything else they experience. We experience life through the action of our brain and what it sends us is real to us whether it has happened objectively or rather outside of our brains or not. Was this women dead or to borrow a phrase, “just mostly dead”. We take organs out of people put them on ice send them across town and put them in new people and they work just fine. What are the limits of the brain what can it do on a physical level? We don’t really know. Are psychics real? Astroprojection? I think you get my point. All these things could possibly be explained on a purely physical level without any recourse to the supernatural. I think we really don’t understand fully the parameters of the natural world. The studies of physicists alone make my head spin and we are still just taking about the natural world. The faith is something revealed and as such we have only what is given and what is not given cannot be discovered by our probing.
I can’t possibly take a position in this question, since I have never had such an experience. I have been twice under general anaesthetic for relatively minor operations, and I experienced absolutely nothing. The anaesthetist asks you to count to ten, and then a moment later, you wake up in the recovery room with an oxygen mask and the device for measuring your blood pressure squeezing your arm.
The real issue is knowing whether everything that exists is contained in the Bible and teachings of the Church, and ultimately whether the institutional Church can act in the place of God to control the whole question of who gets let into heaven and who (by default) are sent to hell.
I remain a Christian (my Bishop would expect nothing less!) but I am open to the possibility of everything that exists being bigger and deeper than what our holy books and institutions teach us. I have a curious mind and try to understand something about the discoveries of science, notably that everything is energy, and energy gives an illusion of matter. Where do we distinguish between the “natural” and the “supernatural”? What is everything is “supernatural”. The boundaries between physics and metaphysics become less clear-cut. We begin to approach universalism and pantheism, which orthodox Churches brand as heretical, but they have the effect of opening the mind rather than closing it. One thing I cannot stand is the narrow mind, refusal of discovery and the spirit of ideology.
How does a flatlined brain experience when a normally anaesthetised brain experiences nothing? How does the human spirit tie in with quantum physics and new discoveries about energy? I don’t have enough scientific knowledge, but I think it is healthy to ask questions and search.
I would reject the notion that an Orthodox view is narrow or an ideology. It rather tends toward proper classification and right distinction. I don’t think Benedict the XVI is narrow minded while being orthodox. One thing I can’t stand is hazy lazy thought masquerading as broadminded intelligence.
Yes, Vince, but how much of “accepted” thinking on such matters is actually orthodox? There is little we actually know about life beyond the grave. Yes, there are precious promises contained in Scripture and in Tradition properly so called, but almost every detail with which traditional believers clothe these promises is the product of human imagination, and some of what is believed and even taught is plain wrong. Is “proper classification and right distinction” necessarily, in itself, a valid pursuit for the Christian? I have my doubts. What if revelation has not given us enough to make definite conclusions? What if God prefers that we not know everything? I’m led to think of the tree in Genesis: the tree of the know;ledge of good and evil. What if such natters are really beyond the capability of the human mind to comprehend? We can speculate, and unless our speculations lead us to places distinctly out of accord with Scripture and the history of Christian thought, we can choose to believe our speculations – but how many of them can we truly put forth as “orthodox”? There’s a balance. The hazy lazy thought you reference is indeed unappealing, but is it any more appealing or any less lazy to insist that what people have been saying is necessarily true? Real orthodoxy has a lot of room for difference of opinion – simply because real orthodoxy insists on the humility of knowing how inadequate all of our speculating and reasoning really are.
The ignorance of modern Westerners is really deplorable and disastrous. They no longer have any precise idea of what the soul is. The experience of the lady is remarkable, of course, but more in relation to the extraordinary skill of the surgeons.
The great absence in the West is the understanding that reality is both one and comprises degrees. The degrees range from the absolutely Real to the most exteriorized and fleeting cosmic manifestations; they range from the transcendent degrees of Divine reality, to the realities of the corporeal universe. Any one fundamental degree of the real is indefinite in extent, rather as a line can be extended indefinitely without becoming a plane, and so on.
The entire physical (gross or corporeal) domain is entirely encompassed by the subtle or animic degree, failing which there would be no life possible, nor any perception of it possible; in its turn, the animic is encompassed by the non-formal spiritual degree, the center of which is the Cosmic Logos, which transfers the divine archetype of creation to cosmic existence. This degree is both Intelligence and creative Power.
The entire cosmos is finally as nothing in comparison to the principial realities of the divine nature. This whole scheme was almost common currency in traditional civilizations, as witnessed in the symbology of their sacred art.
At any rate, the experience of the women during her surgery is explained by the simple truth that the faculties of the soul–the subtle principles of the human faculties–had not yet been severed from the gross or bodily condition, and that is why she could see and hear. Once the real death occurs, the various faculties withdraw from the bodily extension and retreat to the center of the individuality. This is the immortal soul, which can be “saved” in the paradises or “lost” in the outer darkness”–everything depends on the concrete relationship one has with the Divine, which as Fr. Chadwick has noted, is not a “Catholic” or any other particular revealed religion, but the Eternal absolutely and infinitely Real. The authentic and revealed religions, to use Schuon’s felicitous phrase, are like different “Faces of God” turned towards men; their prototypes are enshrined in the unity of the Divine Being. But here below, we follow one path, since it is illogical to try to climb on two paths at once to climb a mountain, or to take two boats at once to cross a body of water. We are individuals, and we need, and can in fact only make use of, one path or one boat, even while knowing that the Truth is universal. It is like one meaning expressed in many languages, like colorless luminosity expressed in many colors.
I would refer the interested reader to the works of Frithjof Schuon and Titus Burckhardt.