Near-death experiences? Not good news for Christians

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Hieronymous Bosch, Ascent of the Blessed, c. 1495. The light at the end of the tunnel has caused some to speculate that Bosch either had a near-death experience or had spoken to someone who did. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image for a high-resolution version

“Near-death experiences are perhaps the only spiritual moments that we have a chance of investigating in a thorough, scientific way.” So writes Gideon Lichfield in this month’s Atlantic. He may be right — usually when someone’s meditating or praying or otherwise opening themselves up to God there are no monitors and electrodes anywhere in sight. But when one is dying in the hospital the best possible experimental apparatus is all in place, set to measure every electrical impulse, every twitch of the neuron.

In the article Lichfield describes his visit to an NDE conference, his discussions with believers and skeptics, and his research into the history and present status — both scientific and social — of NDE’s. In all this he offers plenty of insights, but the most salient is that, to date, there is no hard evidence in favor of NDE’s. That is, none that would convince any scientist. There are plenty of stories, but, as some bright wit once observed, “proof” is not the plural of “anecdote.”

The NDE’s most prominently discussed in the article are of the out-of-body variety, cases in which the patient was able to look down on the hospital room as if floating somewhere near the ceiling. Some “experiencers” describe things they could not have known about from any other vantage point, and researchers prep certain hospital rooms by placing, on shelves near the ceiling, objects that simply cannot be seen by anyone standing on the floor or lying in the bed. The hope is that a out-of-body NDE will happen in one of these rooms, that the disembodied soul will detect the hidden objects, and will, when re-embodied, describe it.

Which brings me to something Lichfield never mentions, certainly because it’s far outside the purview of his article: The very idea of disembodied human souls rising from dead bodies is contrary to orthodox Christianity. The old-time gospel song notwithstanding, Christianity does not say that when we die, hallelujah by and by, we will fly away. Instead the orthodox belief, codified in the creeds and supported by plenty of scripture, including the tradition’s central event, is that there will be a general resurrection of the dead. On that day, if you’re one of the elect, your body will not be left behind, but somehow reconstituted. This event is modeled on the resurrection of Jesus, who of course was not disembodied post-Easter. He could be touched. His glorified body carried the marks of his torture.

The point is, Christianity does not draw a line between the physical and the spiritual. Which makes perfect sense for such an incarnational tradition.

But many people think the body is opposed to the spirit. This old spirit-matter dualism is due largely to Plato and his followers and has nothing to do with the Bible (Paul’s constant references to “the flesh” are not about physical bodies). As an idea it sure dies hard, though; I bet that most churchgoers, if you asked them, would say that we do fly away into some immaterial spirit world — heaven, hell, whatever — immediately after death. But this is simply opposed to standard-issue Christianity.

So if somehow an out-of-body NDE is proved to happen, this would not really be a point for traditional Christianity. In fact, for many believers it would not be good news at all.

Does size matter?

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The Hubble Extreme Deep Field. Two or three points of light have little spikes surrounding them. These are individual stars in the extreme foreground, like bugs on a windshield. All other bright spots are distant — and I do mean distant — galaxies. The faintest flecks of light are galaxies balanced on the very edge of the visible cosmos. Click on the image for a high-resolution view

One of the few things that unify all Christians is the belief that God is the creator. It’s right up front in the Bible — and in the creeds — and forms a foundation for everything that follows.

Assuming this belief to be true, then we may fairly ask: What exactly does the cosmos tell us about God?

Obviously there’s a lot to say here. We could talk about the evolutionary character of the cosmos, or the fact that so much of it seems random, or we could focus on the mind-blowing beauty of it all. But I’ve been thinking about  something else: its incomprehensible size. I have been meditating on, in the memorable prose of Blaise Pascal, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces.”

We don’t actually know if its infinitely large or not, but if it were known to be infinite would that change your understanding of God? If it were known to be finite? Is “practically infinite” the same to you as “infinite”? What if it were known to be rather small (say, the size of the Milky Way)? What if it were tiny (say, the size of the Solar System)? It is expanding rapidly; does this matter? What if it were shrinking? Would any of these scenarios change your view of God? Would any of thus make you doubt God’s existence?

My question to you, Alert Reader, may be distilled: Is the size of the cosmos theologically significant?

Process this quiz

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Leviathan, from the North French Hebrew Miscellany (c. 1278). This sea monster symbolizes the watery chaos from which God created the world (Genesis 1.2). Process theology suggests this chaos (“the deep”) was not itself made by God out of nothing

Last week, you will recall, former pastor Ryan Bell finished up his “year without God” and came out as an atheist. You may remember too that we at psnt.net don’t disagree with him about everything. For example, we reject the same God he rejects, which seems to be precisely the rejectable God: an idea among ideas, homogeneous with the conceptual terrain in general, an add-on and therefore detachable.

Bell went on to question the idea of God as a “divine being who is in charge of things,” and, in the face of this (reasonable, we think) concern, we mentioned something called process theology. This brand of theology has its own reasons for being and is not a mere workaround, but it does offer a clear alternative for those who don’t like the idea of God as a cosmic controller. (Classical Christianity does not see God this way, but some popular theologies do.)

In response to last week’s events, several alert readers queried us about process theology online and a class at our church invited us to visit and talk about it. So there is some interest in process thought, but few outside official theological circles seem to know anything about it.

Assuming you’re on board, we’d like to take a tiny step toward fixing that. And we do mean tiny: despite its soft-boiled reputation, process can be tough to wrap your head around.

We could bore you with a point-by-point lecture, but who wants that? Nobody, that’s who. So, with an eye toward keeping everyone amused, we offer herewith the following activity.

QUIZ: How process are you?

Think in terms of agree/disagree (and yes, “process” is an adjective)

1. God is primarily relational as opposed to being some kind of unity that might stand alone.

2. God is an exception to basic rules of logic and is not the exemplar of such rules.

3. God is omnipotent. That is, God holds all power and can — in principle — do anything.

4. Supernatural events — in which God makes the impossible, possible — occur.

5. God created (or called forth) the world out of pre-existing stuff (chaos, the deep; see Genesis 1.2) and not out of nothing at all (ex nihilo; see classical Christianity).

6. The unfolding of history is ultimately up to us and other creatures. God may beckon and woo and lure us toward the good, but the results are not up to God.

7. God can only create with the assistance of creatures (that’s us, and dinosaurs, and raccoons, and spores, and rocks, and so on).

8. Jesus is different from us in kind — that is, in his essence — and not just in degree. That is, he was not just a man who was unusually tuned-in to God.

9. God promises no ultimate guaranteed victory, moral or otherwise, at history’s end. The future is “more of the same,” so far as we know.

The fully process-positive among you would answer: 1. Agree; 2. Disagree; 3. Disagree; 4. Disagree; 5. Agree; 6. Agree; 7. Agree; 8. Disagree; 9. Agree. Adherents of classical Christianity would answer oppositely in all cases except, depending on definitions, 1 and 2.

As you can see, process gives a stiff yank to some foundational doctrines of the faith. In fact, many hold that process theology is not really Christian at all. Admittedly, it has its roots in the not-Christian process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. But the ancient Greek philosophy that gave shape to so much classical doctrine was not Christian either. In any case, we at psnt.net think that whether or not process is “Christian,” process thinkers can certainly be Christians (Christ-followers).

Time to show our cards: when it comes to process, we are not true believers. However, there are certain aspects of it that are deeply, dare we say crazily, attractive to us. Which ones? Now is not the time. Perhaps future posts will hold the answer.

Meanwhile, find out more about process theology at Process & Faith. Note in particular a nice Q&A page with John Cobb, one of the foremost Christian advocates of process thought.

Thanks to Roger E. Olson at Patheos. The quiz is based on his article, “Why I am Not A Process Theologian.”

So this pastor is now an atheist, and he’s kind of got a point

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Maybe a bad idea: “A divine being who is in charge of things.” Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern” (1860)

About a year ago a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor named Ryan Bell started living without believing in God and, like any normal 21st-century person, he blogged about it.

His year without God is over and now the guy’s an atheist.

Fearfully, I glanced at his website. But he’s not what I guessed: a black-and-white, binary thinker whose new hatred of God and religious expression is just as hot as his former Christian conviction. But he’s got none of that nonsense going on. He seems a reasonable guy. He’s pretty relaxed about the whole thing. I’d like to meet him.

You can read a short interview with him here. In it, when asked why he no longer believes in God, Bell responds:

The intellectual and emotional energy it takes to figure out how God fits into everything is far greater than dealing with reality as it presents itself to us… the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary. The world makes more sense to me as it is, without postulating a divine being who is somehow in charge of things.

Now as many of you know I’m a Christian minister. Despite its folly, its well-known crimes, and its millions of tiny betrayals of trust, I love the tradition that formed me. I believe that, deep down, it gives us a glimpse of what human life is really about. This is important to me so I’ve stuck with it. I do all the churchy stuff church people do. I do my best to love God and to stay connected to my divine source.

But I think Bell’s onto something. Three somethings, really. First, he is right: It does take intellectual and emotional energy to believe in God. It’s not at all easy to understand how God “fits into everything.” For some of us it’s fun, and occasionally enlightening. But if it becomes a mere chore you really should stop. I stop a lot. I have even, on occasion, tried to stay stopped. But here at midlife disbelieving in God would be indistinguishable from disbelieving in myself. Not because I’m God but because God is central to my deepest and most secret identity.

Which gets me to my second comment: I don’t see God as an extra. God is not a thing among things, or an idea among ideas. God is in no way addable to — or subtractable from — anything. In my experience God is encountered in exactly the reality Bell deals with when he stops thinking about God and sees the world truly. “All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.” If he sees God as an add-on, as a removable idea, I can understand why trying to figure out God gives him such a headache, and why a year off has been good for him.

Finally, and to my larger point here and beyond: I am beginning to wonder about our classical Christian idea of God as a “divine being who is in charge of things.” It might be good to stop insisting this is what God is. Maybe our idea of an omnipotent God-in-charge is just an ego trip. Maybe it’s about what we want: control.

There is a strand of theology (called process theology) that rejects the traditional power-as-control divine model. I have known about it — and taught it — for years, but am recently becoming more and more swayed by it. I won’t develop this idea here today, but I will be unpacking it a little over the coming weeks here at psnt.net.

In the meantime, head on over to Bell’s blog. It’s energizing reading for anyone with an interest in God (or not-God).