I’ve just returned from an annual conference on near-death experiences presented this year in San Diego by the International Association for Near Death Studies. For those who don’t know, near-death experiences are a sampling of what happens to us when we die, as reported by those who have recovered.
During the time their bodies are clinically dead, people report such out-of-body experiences as looking down on the paramedics struggling to restart their heart, having conversations with deceased loved ones or angels, and even journeying through a dark tunnel to a place filled with golden light and great love.
My onboard reading for the flight to California was Dan Brown’s latest novel, “The Lost Symbol.” Regular readers of this column know I’ve had little patience with Brown’s past attacks on Christian religion, particularly his vicious take on the Catholic Church. This time around, I was pleasantly surprised, to a point.
In “The Lost Symbol,” Brown explores the cascading movement toward Noetic Science that is fast replacing denominational religion as a more direct approach to the power of the Holy Spirit. (Noetic: from the ancient Greek nous. It refers to “inner knowing,” a kind of intuitive consciousness; direct and immediate access to knowledge beyond what is available to our normal senses and the power of reason. For more information, check out the Institute for Noetic Sciences (IONS) Web site, where I found this definition.)
Brown’s characters dialogue some of these explorations: “Is it not possible that we are still living in the Dark Ages, still mocking the suggestion of ‘mystical’ forces that we cannot see or comprehend. History, if it has taught us anything at all, has taught us that the strange ideas we deride today will one day be our celebrated truths.” (Page 308)
Of course, Noetic Science is well past the kindergarten stages when it comes to military and CIA intelligence. Take remote viewing, for example, where trained psychics probe behind enemy lines armed only with the “eyes” of their right-brain visions. (A few years back, the military claimed to have abandoned such research. They now contract it out to private sources.)
Religion, as well, has employed such powers, with verified cases of healing through prayer. We know it comes from God, of course, but in the process we become the channels of intention that can turn hope to reality.
Brown cites as well some of the Rosicrucian-based beliefs that “Jehovah will redeem humanity by revealing those secrets which he previously reserved only for the elect … The whole world shall become as one book and all the contradictions of science and theology shall be reconciled … Before the end of the world, God shall create a great flood of spiritual light to alleviate the suffering of humankind.” (Page 327)
Brown’s characters also acknowledge the existence of evil: “The invisible forces that existed [in the spiritual realm], much like man himself, came in many forms, both good and evil. Those of Light healed, protected and sought to bring order to the universe. Those of Dark functioned oppositely … bringing destruction and chaos.” (Page 358)
My meeting in San Diego proved remarkable. Many books about near-death experiences have been published since Raymond Moody, M.D., wrote his pioneering “Life after Life,” but nothing is more powerful than firsthand accounts of visions and gifts gained from these visits to the other side.
My trip to California was out of more than curiosity. In fact, my doctoral project at Bangor Theological Seminary is about near-death experience and its role in spiritual education. More than that, I survived a childhood near-death experience, and was anxious to be in the presence of dozens of other “experiencers.”
I came away convinced that these near-death experiencers have not been fooled by rapid eye movements, or DMT-induced hallucinations from the dying brain, since they have observed and learned things the brain could not know under any circumstances except spiritual ones. As Raymond Moody told Jeffrey Mishlove, one of the speakers at the conference, “I have absolutely no doubt, on the basis of what my patients have told me, that they did get a glimpse of the beyond.”
I said “to a point” about Brown’s book, and now I’ll tell you why. Stylewise, it’s annoying the way Brown cuts back and forth in the storyline, just as I’ve exemplified in this week’s column. The main reason, however, is purely philosophical. Brown’s bad guy tries throughout the book to amass spiritual power, while the good guys are only trying to prove spiritual powers exist. But when, in the end, these powers prove real, the good guys also mouth Brown’s notion that men can be like gods. Now wasn’t that the line Satan fed Eve in the Garden? You’re darn tootin’ it was.
We have enormous psychic ability latent in our immortality, but until we learn the true secret of the afterlife — that all you need is love — more power won’t get us a handle on anything but more trouble.
Our world today is on the brink of collapse as the result of greed, cruelty, hate and fear. What we need to strive for is less power over others, not more. Until we learn to live Jesus’ command to love God and one another, we’d best shelve Brown’s conclusion that “we can be like gods” for another, more mature day.
For those interested in reading some accounts of near-death experiences and how they teach us about love, check out seattleiands.org. They have several accounts on their Web site. And if you’ve had a near-death experience and would like to share it, e-mail me at the address below. Thanks!
Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.