THIS WAY TO HEAVEN OR A DISCUSSION ABOUT IT
First Parish of Norwell, Mass. – April 5, 1987 –
Brockton 11-12-17, Fall River 1-14-18,
UUMH Chatham 11-4-18
I know a man in Christ who 14 years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.(New Testament - II Cor. 12)
I felt myself die by degrees, and exactly at midnight I was separated from my body and saw the people occupied in watching it according to the custom of the country. I had a great desire to be freed form the sight of my body, and immediately I was drawn up as in a cloud and beheld great wonders where I passed, impossible to be written or expressed…. In this place I found that I had two guardians, one at my right hand and the other at my left, exceeding beautiful beyond expression, whose boundless friendship and love seemed to penetrate through all my inward parts…. Then my guardian took me up and reconducted me to the house from whence I came, here I perceived the people assembled. And discovering my body in the coffin, I was re-united with the same and found myself lodged within my earthly tabernacle. (Dr. George De Benneville: 1703-1793)
A man is dying and…he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor...at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body,…and he sees his body from a distance, as though he is a spectator….Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before—a being of light—appears before him…to make him evaluate his life….Yet, he finds he must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come…He does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives. (Raymond A. Moody, Jr., M.D. – 1975)
In his well-known pamphlet, “Meet the Unitarian Universalists”, the Rev. Dr. Jack Mendelsohn tells a rather humorous parable about UU’s. He notes that if there were two cross roads, one with a sign pointing “This Way To Heaven” and the other with a sign pointing “”This Way To A Discussion About Heaven”, the Unitarian Universalist would invariably take the latter road. He/she would simply never be able to resist the opportunity to take part in a discussion.
Jack Mendelsohn’s parable has always bothered me a bit. Because a truly dedicated Unitarian Universalist, one who was an earnest truth seeker, would first take the road to heaven and then come back and go the discussion group. That way he or she would know what they were talking about when expressing an opinion, only it would cease being mere opinion. It would be informed opinion.
Now it could well be argued that no one has ever gone to heaven and comeback to tell the tale, except for the fact that that argument is not entirely true. There are those, both ancient and modern who have died or nearly died, been revived, and have then reported apparent transcendental out-of-body experiences (OOBEs), which seem to corroborate (for those who have them) the ancient belief in the survival of the soul after bodily death.
From the apostle Paul to Dr. George DeBenneville, to Dr. Raymond Moody and hundreds of people living today, both religious and nonreligious—near-death experiences (NDEs), and after-life encounters, continue to be reported—experiences which the “common-sense” rational side of our nature thinks of as “fanciful” or “hallucinatory”, but not to be taken seriously, and certainly not to be accepted as real or true. But what if one were to collect and record hundreds of such reported NDEs and discovered an emerging pattern of similar testimonies regardless of a person’s background, education, social class, religious orientation or beliefs or the lack thereof. Would you begin to take such reported experiences more seriously than before, and would you want to study them more closely?
Well, this is exactly what happened to Dr. Raymond Moody, Jr., M.D., a man trained in the field of both philosophy and medicine. In the course of his teaching and lecturing on the question of death and immortality he found students and members of his audiences coming forward and sharing with him their experiences of dying and near-death, and what impact these experiences and had had upon their lives and beliefs. Dr. Moody collected some 150 such cases, analyzed and compared them, and published his findings in a small 125pp. paperback book, Life After Life, in 1975. The book became an underground best seller and elevated Dr. Moody and a newly emerging field of Near-Death Studies into the public arena. By 1978 there were 2,750,000 copies in print and the book had been translated into a dozen or more languages. Moody’s work was followed by that of Dr. Kenneth Ring, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, who founded the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS). What began as largely the work of one man soon grew into a cross-cultural mass movement with scientific credentials—not just a passing Moody interest but something with the Ring of truth.
What exactly did Moody and Ring discover in their studies of Near-Death-Experiences? Let us begin with Moody. Dr. Moody talked about three basic types of NDE’s. (1) Those who had been declared clinically dead by a doctor and were later resuscitated. (2) Those who came near to death, almost died, but were revived from the brink of death. (3) Those who eventually died but in the course of their dying reported extraordinary experiences to others at their bedside. In the literature these are called “deathbed visions” (DBVs). Moody’s cases were primarily of the first two types. The latter of the three types has been literally “studied to death” by Dr. Karlis Osis in his book At the Hour of Death, published two years after Moody’s book. Osis analyzed more than 10,000 responses of medical observers of the dying in both the U.S. and India. The results of his research corroborates both Moody’s and Ring’s findings. Dr. Karlis Osis was one of our speakers at the Psi Symposium during UUA General Assembly many years ago.
It is significant, I think, that at the time of researching his first book Moody was a complete novice in the field of psychical research. He was totally unfamiliar with the voluminous case materials gathered in the 19th and 20th centuries by the London and American Societies for Psychical Research that parallel his own findings. So he had no preconceptions as he gathered and studied his 150 cases of NDE’s. The main criticism of Moody’s book by scholars and scientists was its lack of scholarship (he had only eight references in his bibliography) and its absence of any kind of rigorous scientific methodology (an uncritical use of anecdotal material). These shortcomings were later corrected by Dr. Kenneth Ring, at the University of Connecticut, who did a careful analysis of 102 cases of NDE’s using the tools of psychological research and interviewing, reading extensively in the field, and quantifying his results in terms of graphs and statistics. What he found corroborated what Moody had discovered without the scholarship or scientific methodology.
Dr. Michael Sabom, a cardiologist, followed suit with his own study of 116 cases of near-death. Still more corroboration of Moody’s findings! Finally in 1982 George Gallup published his finds of a major poll of Americans regarding their experiences and beliefs about death immortality. Gallup revealed that there are an estimated 8 million adults (5% of the total adult population) who have had NDE’s similar to those described and analyzed by Dr. Moody, Ring and others.
So, what we have before us is not a few strands of fanciful anecdotal cases far out of the mainstream of the culture, but an impressive collection of human experiences about near-death and dying and possible hints about the after-death state. None of this, of course, proves life after death. Alternative explanations are always possible. What it does offer is some experiential basis beyond wishful thinking and religious dogma for substantiating the belief in life after death. As Unitarian Universalists, and existentially concerned human beings, we ought to be at least informed about what is happening in this new and exciting field of research. The late Arthur Ford once said, “We have a right to know the kind of universe we live in.” If the kind of universe we live in includes the possible reality of life after death we have a right to know that. We should at least be interested in looking at the evidence, if evidence there is.
Well then, what do the findings from Near-Death Studies tell us about the human condition and the question of life after death? What Moody and Ring and many others have found is that there is indeed a basic pattern to the NDE which tends to be repeated time and again in case after case, the majority (at the time of the study) never having read about or been aware of such experiences prior to their own close encounter with death. [Nowadays that would no longer be the case since reports about NDE’s are now widely known.]
Some of the characteristics reported by those who have come close to death and survived are as follows: (1) Being out of their body and looking down at their physical body lying on the ground or in bed. (2) Hearing the doctor or others pronounce them dead. (3) Feelings of deep peace and contentment. (4) Hearing strange noises or beautiful ethereal music. (5) Sensations of moving swiftly through a dark tunnel towards a vivid bright light. (6) Meeting others, departed loved ones or spiritual beings, who may tell them their time has not yet come or who are there to help them through the transition of death. (7) Encounter with an intelligent and loving field or being of light who asks them what they have done with their life. (8) A rapid panoramic review of their life and a sense of what remains to be accomplished. (9) Reaching a border or limit beyond which they cannot go. (10) The decision and reluctant return to one’s physical body. (11) The ineffability of the experience and (12) the difficulty in telling others about it without being thought strange or odd or even insane.
Dr. Kenneth Ring has studied the after-effects of the NDE and has found it to be “a catalyst for spiritual development.” There are heightened religious feelings, a conviction of belief in God and of the sacredness of life. There is a shift away from materialistic values towards spiritual values and a sense of mission and concern to help others. There is a sharp decline in the fear of death and a strengthening of a person’s belief in life after death; in most it becomes an unshakable conviction. There is a strengthening of a person’s appreciation for the value and meaning of human life. Most feel that we are here for a purpose, to grow in love and knowledge, and to take that wisdom and compassion with us to the other side. Ring has found that people who had had an NDE tend to move towards what he calls “a universalistically spiritual orientation.” There is a greater openness and sympathy toward the insights of Eastern religions including the belief in reincarnation. There is a conviction of the essential underlying unity of all religions and a desire for a universal religion embracing all humanity. If some of this sounds sympathetic and compatible with Unitarian Universalism the similarity is not coincidental.
Ring’s book, Lessons From the Light, is an attempt to make the fruits and after-effects of NDE’s available to those who have not yet had such an experience themselves, but can nonetheless be inspired and motivated by the experiences of others. A Near-Death Experience is often a life-changing peak experience for those who have them. Ring believes that even us non-peakers can take a peek and find ourselves transformed by what we see and hear from the testimony of like-minded souls.
So, what are we to make of all this? The reality or unreality of life after death will not change or solve current earthly problems of pollution, inflation, terrorism or war, other than to perhaps make us less frenetic and fretful over material things and physical survival. That would, of course, be a plus for ourselves and the planet if we became more contented with our material blessings, and more willing to share what we have with others. If NDE’s can be a catalyst for spiritual development in the lives of individuals perhaps we can learn from the experience of others and do our utmost to save our planet and collective humanity from going through a nuclear near-death experience that the survivors would rather not have learned.
If we can live our lives with the assumption that what we are, and what we do, really matters, and makes a difference both here and hereafter, then it seems to me we can’t be far wrong. If it turns out to be true we will have made a meaningful connection between life in the body and life in the spirit. If it turns out not to be so we will have nonetheless made our lives more significant and meaningful for ourselves and for those who follow after. This of course is a variation of the old William James-ian pragmatic argument for existential truth that matters here and now whether or not it endures forever. In either case Emerson’s dictum remains true for all of us: “What we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.”
Finally, I think it is important for us to stretch our thoughts about ultimate things and to contemplate larger possibilities of mind and reality. Minot Savage, late 19th century Unitarian preacher, said it well: “In a universe the size of this, a modest scientific man will hesitate about declaring as to what is or is not impossible. It is a great universe, and a strange one. We are strange beings, and as yet know but little as to our own selves.” Well, we have learned a little, maybe a lot more about ourselves, since we have studied the mysteries of our own death and dying and the possibilities of more life to come. But mystery still abounds and the more we learn the more we discover there is to learn. And in matters of life and death, and the question of life after death, we have only begun our education. May it be no mere Moody blues passing fancy, but something with the Ring of truth to it. “This Way to Heaven.” The discussion will follow.