Science and near-death experience: a gathering storm? (ii) – Life Review

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Cochin Hospital, Paris (photo: Lepetitlord)

(Thoughts for Rachel Held Evans, Tony Jones and Tim Challies)

 Again, an embarrassingly long time has passed since the last instalment of this particular thread on near-death experiences, at the end of which we left NDEr Howard Storm languishing in the ‘sewer of the universe’ following his (shambolic) hospitalization at the Cochin hospital in Paris with a ruptured duodenum in 1985.

This is not of course to say that the subject has gone away in the meantime. In particular, there have been at least three heated discussions of the topic in the theo-blogosphere (focussing on Baptist pastor Don Piper’s best-selling 90 minutes in Heaven) hosted by Tim Challies at http://www.challies.com/articles/heaven-tourism, Rachel Held Evans http://rachelheldevans.com/afterlife-memoirs , and Tony Jones at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2012/06/22/don-piper-did-not-go-to-heaven/#comments .

The many readers’ reactions on these pages are perhaps just as if not more interesting than the original articles of the three bloggers in question. Not least because of the participation of a fair number of near-death experiencers for whom the various objections raised by the sceptics (largely on theological grounds) do not square with the self-authenticating nature of what is evidently experientially compelling for them. A common and frustrating feature of the comments (with a few notable exceptions) is however the generally poor level of logical analysis, frequent recourse to a priori arguments and above all a lack of sober engagement with the substantial body of scientific research on the subject, much of which is readily available to the general public via the internet. I will return to all this at the end of the current article, but let’s begin with a very brief summary of the next stage in Howard Storm’s gripping narrative in My Descent into Death.

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The story so far: Storm, having been left untreated on a hospital trolley for 10 hours in a life-threatening condition, has had an unexpected out-of-body experience,  during which he has been duped into following a group of people dressed as hospital orderlies who lead him outside our normal realm of space-time and turn on him like a lynch mob. He has been able to repel his assailants by reciting something vaguely resembling a prayer, but now finds himself in total existential isolation, ‘left alone to become a creature of the dark’. Storm (who despite his professed atheism had been brought up attending a Congregational church on the outskirts of Boston) then recalls himself as a small boy ‘full of innocence, trust, and hope’ singing ‘Jesus loves me, da da da’:

‘A ray of hope began to dawn in me, a belief that there really was something greater out there. For the first time in my adult life I wanted it to be true that Jesus loved me. I didn’t know how to express what I wanted and needed, but with every bit of my last ounce of strength, I yelled out into the darkness, “Jesus, save me.”‘[1]

This is the one part of Storm’s story that in isolation might at first sound suspiciously like a piece of traditional Christian apologetics; at this point, there appears a light ‘brighter than the sun, brighter than a flash of lightning’, and a Being of Light (identified as Jesus in the book) radiating unconditional love, who rescues him from the cosmic cesspit.

The Being of Light takes Howard Storm up and out of the darkness towards the ‘brilliant white center of the universe’. However, Storm (whose tone throughout is remarkably free from self-exaltation) describes himself as racked by feelings of shame, thinking to himself “I am scum that belongs back down in the sewer. They have made a terrible mistake. I don’t belong here.” At this point, he is reassured that “we don’t make mistakes, and you do belong here”, and is comforted by the appearance of beings whom he depicts in terms that could have been taken straight from Olivier Messiaen’s commentaries to works such as Quatuor pour la fin du temps or Couleurs de la cité céleste:

‘Then Jesus called out in a musical tone to some of the luminous entities radiating from the great center. Several came and circled round us. The radiance emanating from them contained exquisite colors of a range and intensity far exceeding anything I had seen before. It was like looking at the iridescence in the deep brilliance of a diamond. We simply do not have the words to express their beauty. When you look into a bright light, the intensity hurts your eyes. These being were far brighter than the most powerful searchlight, yet I could look at them with no sense of discomfort. In fact, their radiance penetrated me; I could feel it inside and through me, and it made me feel wonderful. It was ecstasy. These were the saints and angels.'[2]

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Fra Angelico (1395/1400-1455), Annunciation (detail), Museo San Marco, Florence

(Messiaen’s inspiration for the costume of the Angel in the première of Saint François d’Assise)

Light untellable

Such descriptions of an unearthly radiance shining from within, incomparably brighter than any created light, yet curiously possible to contemplate without being blinded, are so common and similar within the near-death literature as to have become a cliché. However, it should be stressed that they seem to occur irrespective of the religious background (or lack of it) of the experiencer, and join a long mystical tradition, as Evelyn Underhill points out in her 1911 classic Mysticism:

“Light rare, untellable!” said Whitman. “The flowing light of the Godhead,” said Mechthild of Magdeburg, trying to describe what it was that made the difference between her universe and that of normal men. “Lux vivens dicit” [the living light speaks], said St. Hildegarde of her revelations, which she described as appearing in a special light, more brilliant than the brightness round the sun. It is an “infused brightness,” says St. Teresa, “a light which knows no night; but rather, as it is always light, nothing ever disturbs it”[3]

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The language employed to evoke the notion of a light unknown in worldly categories is arrestingly similar in many contemporary near-death reports, however much they may diverge in the metaphysical interpretation of the radiance:

‘It looked unspeakably bright, as if it was the centre of the universe, the source of all light and power. It was more brilliant than the sun, more radiant than any diamond, brighter than a laser beam light.  Yet you could look right into it.’ (A Glimpse of Eternity: One Man’s Encounter with Life Beyond Death, Ian McCormack/Jenny Sharkey. Available on-line at http://aglimpseofeternity.org/ians-testimony/ians-testimony.php)

‘All of a sudden, I was aware of a tiny bright light far away in the “sky” but rapidly coming nearer and nearer. It was shaped like a ball and it was indescribably bright. I tried to shade my eyes, but I did not need to. Despite its incredible brightness and brilliance, it did not dazzle me a bit!

Presently, this light stopped at a distance right above me. It was a sun about the same size as the sun of our world, but it was indescribably brighter. I kept staring at this sun wondering how a light could possess such brilliance.’ http://near-death.com/wagner.html

‘It was like a hundred thousand suns. Bright, incredibly bright. I could look directly in that light. It was so very powerful and ever so bright.’ http://celestial.kuriakon00.com/nde/ken_mullens.htm

‘The pinpoint of Light became a brilliant white beam a trillion times brighter than the brightest sun imaginable, and began to move toward me.  At first, it appeared to be bands of multifaceted light being stretched and pulled together.  I knew this Light was the presence of God.

I was awestruck, overwhelmed by the Light, the love, the love of God for me!  I knew I could go into this Light, which was part of a tremendous force.  And, although the Light was brighter than a thousand suns, it didn’t hurt my eyes.’ http://www.near-death.com/morrissey.html

‘I looked at the fire and realized it was brighter than a thousand suns but you could stare at it without hurting your eyes.’ http://iands.org/experiences/nde-accounts/809-kissed-by-a-marshmallow.html

‘The light – the fantastic light. It was brighter than the sun shining on a field of snow. Yet I could look at it and it didn’t hurt my eyes.’ http://www.near-death.com/group.html

‘The light was so bright that it was brighter than 10,000 suns and I immediately said, “This should be burning my retinas, but it wasn’t. It was a gentle but powerful light. It was pulling me like a gentle magnet.’ http://www.in5d.com/spiritual-reality-nde.html

‘Then I saw a great white light at the end of the tunnel and to me this light was God. I don’t know how to explain it other than it was brighter than the sun.’ http://iands.org/nde-stories/nde-like-accounts/371-light-brighter-than-the-sun.html

‘We then began going towards this beautiful light. As we got closer to it, the light just engulfed me. It was brighter than the sun but didn’t hurt my eyes.’ http://www.examiner.com/article/glauco-schaffer-and-his-two-brothers-drowning-ndes-ii

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Page from Hildegard of Bingen’s Liber Scivias Domini (12th century)

In the company of the beings of Light Howard Storm proceeds to undergo what is one of the most striking features of many near-death accounts, and an aspect for which no physiological account of the NDE phenomenon (as for example produced by a lack of oxygen, an excess of CO2 in the blood, endorphin action or the administration of anaesthetics such as Ketamine) has ever produced a coherent explanation: a panoramic, interactive life review.

While by no means a universal part of near-death experience reports, the similarities between life reviews in the NDE literature are such as to merit serious comment. The idea that in the last moments before death the dying person sees her whole life flash before her in an instant is such a commonplace as to be the stuff of urban legend, but the type of life review described by Storm and many others is much more than this. Moreover, these reviews are often intriguingly counter-intuitive, even for those of us brought up in religious traditions in which the inexorability of judgment is an integral part of the structure of moral accountability built into the universe.

Although researchers have stressed that there is a wide variety amongst reported life reviews, there are at least three consistent features of accounts such as Storm’s which are striking for the way in which they confound pre-conceived notions and can be found recurring in many independent narratives:
i) The only dimension of human life which seems to be concerned is the question of how the near-death experiencer has treated other people while on earth. Society’s notions of ‘achievement’ seem to be entirely irrelevant; indeed, the life review may concentrate on events which at first sight seem completely trivial[4]
ii) Although initiated and accompanied by the Being or beings of light, the ‘judgment’ (which is probably best understood as preliminary and pedagogical, not a final verdict as in Biblical passages such as Matthew 25 or Revelation 20[5]) is basically a self-evaluation, a realization of the true moral import of our lives once we are taken outside our limited individual perspective.
iii) The key feature of the life review – and one whose very strangeness would seem to be an indication of authenticity – is that the reviewer is made to understand the effects of her actions on others from their point of view:

‘We watched and experienced episodes that were from the point of view of a third party. The scenes they showed me were often of incidents I had forgotten. They showed their effects on people’s lives, of which I’d had no previous knowledge. They reported the thoughts and feelings of people I had interacted with, which I had been unaware of at the time.'[6]

Another excellent example of this can be found in the account of Steven Fanning read out in Huston Smith’s thought-provoking Ingersoll Lecture given at Harvard Divinity School on October 18, 2001 entitled ‘Intimations of Mortality: Three Case Studies’:

‘With the Being beside me, exuding love and comfort to me, I re-experienced my life, and it was not what I would have expected. While growing up in a fundamentalist church, I had been told many times about what it would be like when one faced God after death. It would be something like watching God’s movie of your life (as in Albert Brooks’s film Defending Your Life). You would watch all the scenes of your life on the screen and there would be nothing you could do but admit that the record was true: ‘Well, I guess you got me, fair and square.’ But this is not what happened. It was a re-experiencing of my life, but from three different perspectives simultaneously.'[7]

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Huston Smith, 2005

Fanning describes the first perspective in terms of ‘reliving of overt events as it was re-experiencing the emotions, feelings, and thoughts of my life. Here were the emotions that I had felt and why I had believed that I had them. Here were my conscious reasons for the actions that I had taken. Here were the hurts I felt and my responses to them. Here was my emotional life as I recalled having experienced it.’ However, the second perspective is that of others:

‘I felt what they felt, I lived their emotions as they acted with and reacted to me. This was their version of my life. When I thought they were clearly out of line and reacted with anger or thoughtlessness, I felt the pain and frustration my actions caused them. It was an absolutely different view of my life and it was not a pretty one. It was shocking to feel the pain that another person felt due to what I had done even as, when I did them, I believed myself to have been fully justified because of the person’s own actions. At the time I had told myself that I was justified, but even if that were true, their pain was real. It hurt.'[8]

Many other similar examples of what eminent near-death researchers Kenneth Ring of the University of Connecticut and Evelyn Elsaesser Valarino aptly term a ‘surprising empathic turnabout’ could be offered here, but one particularly compelling one can be found in the NDE account of Thomas Sawyer as recounted in Ring’s and Valarino’s Lessons from the Light.  In his review Sawyer among other things re-experienced an altercation in which he had beaten up a pedestrian whose only offence was that he had almost collided with a pick-up truck that Sawyer had been driving:

‘Tom was forced to relive this scene, and like many others who have described their life reviews to me, he found himself doing so from a dual perspective. One part of himself, he said, seemed to be high up in a building overlooking the street from which perch he simply witnessed, like an elevated spectator, the fight taking place below. But another part of Tom was actually involved in the fight again. However, this time, in the life review, he found himself in the place of the other party, and experienced each distinct blow he had inflicted on this man — thirty-two in all, he said — before collapsing unconscious on the pavement.'[9]

The comment on such life reviews in Ring’s and Valarino’s book is worth quoting:

‘Perhaps the most obvious — and important — insight that is voiced, in one way or another, is that this exercise forces one to think about the meaning of the Golden Rule in an entirely new way. Most of us are accustomed to regard it mainly as a precept for moral action — “do unto others as you would be done to.” But in the light of these life review commentaries, the Golden Rule is much more than that — it is actually the way it works. In short, if these accounts in fact reveal to us what we experience at the point of death, then what we have done unto others is experienced as done unto ourselves. Familiar exhortations such as, “love your brother as yourself,” from this point of view are understood to mean that, in the life review, you yourself are the brother you have been urged to love. And this is no mere intellectual conviction or even a religious credo — it is an undeniable fact of your lived experience.‘[10]

Returning to Fanning’s report, it is however the third perspective which is the only one that can be labelled as true in an ultimate sense:

‘It was not my version, with my justifications. It was not that of the others in my life, with their versions of my life and their own justifications for their own actions, thoughts, and feelings. It was an unbiased view, free of the subjective and self-serving rationalizations that the others and I had used to support the countless acts of selfishness and lack of true love in our lives. To me it can only be described as God’s view of my life. It was what had really happened, the real motivations, the truth. Stripped away were my lies to myself that I actually believed, my self-justification, my preference to see myself always in the best light.'[11]

Although the examples of life reviews I have given are situated in a Western context, medical sociologist Allan Kellehear has recently adduced interesting anthropological evidence to suggest that life reviews are not only found in Anglo-European NDE reports. Two studies carried out  in 1990 (of 197 Beijing residents) and 1992 (of 81 survivors of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake) also confirmed the occurrence of life reviews in Chinese contexts. The same appears to be true in India, where the form taken by such reviews is however different; Indian accounts apparently tend to take the form of a reading of the life record of the experiencer (in accordance with Hindu belief). In Thailand, life reviews are reported as occurring in the presence of supernatural beings (Yama, Lord of the Underworld, and his servants the Yamatoots. The life review does not however seem to be found in African, Native American, Australian Aboriginal or Pacific  NDEs. Whether this should be attributed to the relatively small amounts of research in these areas or, as Kellehear thought-provokingly argues, to differing notions of the self and moral accountability in such cultures is a matter of conjecture (see Janice Holden, Bruce Greyson, Debbie James (eds), The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation, 139-141, 152-154).

Towards a possible interpretation

How then can we interpret the phenomenon of the NDE life review given both the overwhelming structural similarities between accounts on one hand and on the other a certain sense that the experience is not only subsequently expressed in the context of the experiencer’s cultural matrix but also ‘tailor-made’ to suit the individual in question? This would seem to require much more interrogation of the data, but the most credible model is perhaps one that involves the notion of the life review as a ‘feedback loop’ (a concept advanced by celebrated NDEr Mellen-Thomas Benedict) that reflects the experiencer’s subjectivity and cultural background. Such a model also however needs to allow for the possibility that the Divine may ‘accommodate’ itself to the experiential categories of the NDEr for the pedagogical purposes that seem to be an integral part of NDE accounts. In other words, the encounter with a Being of Light present during a life review is no mere ‘projection’ generated by an individual’s psychology, but neither do we seem to be talking about an ‘objectifiable’ free-standing reality which reveals itself in precisely the same way to all who encounter it.

In comparison with the serious work over several decades into near-death experience carried out by some of the researchers referenced above, the public discussions hosted by Rachel Held Evans and Tony Jones (both of whose blogs I admire more generally, I should add) on the subject of near-death experience reports have unfortunately proved depressingly if predictably superficial. To reduce the issue to whether Don Piper ‘really’ – whatever that is supposed to mean in relation to non-bodily consciousness – spent 90 minutes in heaven or whether Colton Burpo’s perhaps hastily-ridiculed vision of Jesus with a ‘rainbow horse’ in Heaven is for Real (of which the most balanced appraisal I have yet found has been penned by Bruce Epperly here) is ‘compatible with Scripture’ is to trivialize a subject with potentially huge implications for the way in which we perceive both science and spirituality.

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I cannot help feeling that a more productive conversation might have ensued had the question under consideration been the role of the life review in NDE reports, which in the estimation of Jeffrey Long (whose recent Evidence of the After-Life constitutes the most ambitious survey of NDE accounts yet published), appears to be the element of the near-death experience with the greatest subsequent impact on the lives of survivors, ‘by far the greatest catalyst for change.'[12]  It is also perhaps the most resistant to any kind of reductionist approach due to the richness of its informational and ethical dimension. Indeed, even if it could be conclusively demonstrated that, say, inter-ictal discharges in the hippocampus or amygdala are capable of generating hallucinations as coherent as a panoramic life review[13], this would in itself do nothing to explain the extraordinary empathic content and sense of compassionate judgment found in accounts such as that of Howard Storm. Experienced meaning is not something reducible to changes in brain states; it rather requires assessment on a different explanatory plane. To use a musical parallel, no evidence of an endorphin surge while composing would ‘explain’ the epiphanic dimension of the Adagio of the Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner (a real musical ‘near-death experience’ if ever there was one)[14].   Looking to understand neural correlates of transcendent experience is certainly a valid area of research, but to look to chemical causation to explicate an encounter with unconditional Divine love is simply to make a category mistake.

I would therefore invite those who have commented on RHE’s and TJ’s blogs, as well as to those who weighed in during the recent controversy over NDE research at http://www.salon.com between Mario Beauregard and PZ Myers, to read a few accounts of life reviews such as those of Howard Storm or Steven Fanning (the more the better, as the evidence starts to stack up after a while), and then tell me what they think is going on.

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NOTES

[1] Howard Storm, My Descent into Death: a Second Chance at Life (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 24.

[2] Ibid., 28.

[3] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (Methuen, 1912), 299.

[4] In another re-telling of his story, Storm remarks: ‘My life was shown in a way that I had never thought of before. All of the things that I had worked to achieve, the recognition that I had worked for, in elementary school, in high school, in college, and in my career, they meant nothing in this setting.[…]I got to see when my sister had a bad night one night, how I went into her bedroom and put my arms around her. Not saying anything, I just lay there with my arms around her. As it turned out that experience was one of the biggest triumphs of my life.’ (reprinted on-line at http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/v/o/n/Gottfried-H-Von-sponneck/FILE/0003page.html )
[5] Terence Nichols of the University of St Thomas concurs in his perceptive and balanced chapter on near-death experience in his recent Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction ‘How does this peculiar element of NDEs relate to the individual or the last judgment? Certainly it is not the last or final judgment, in which we seee our lives in the context of all of human history. Rather, it seems to be a foretaste or a preview of the individual judgment – it is a judgment by one’s own conscience, after all – but in the light of a loving being’ (Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011), 201n.). An interesting Jewish interpretation of the life review in Talmudic categories can be found at http://www.innernet.org.il/article.php?aid=299

[6] Storm, My Descent into Death, 30.
[7] Huston Smith, ‘Intimations of Mortality: Three Case Studies’, Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, Winter 2001-2002, 12-16 (available online at  http://www.theisticscience.org/spirituality/DivBull2002winter-Smith.pdf ).

[8] Ibid.. Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel, author of an important study of cardiac arrest patients in the Netherlands, describes the same phenomenon in non-religious terms: ‘All of life, from birth up until the present moment, can be relived as a spectator and as an actor. This makes it much more than a speeded-up film. People know their own and others’ past thoughts and feelings because they have a connection with the memories and emotions of others. During a life review people experience the effects of their thoughts, words, and actions on other people when they originally occurred, and they also get a sense of whether love has been shared or withheld’ (Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life: the Science of the Near-Death Experience (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 35). The NDE literature abounds with such examples, e.g. Sandra Rogers (following a suicide attempt by gunshot in 1976): http://www.near-death.com/experiences/suicide03.html or David Oakford (after a drugs overdose in 1979): http://www.near-death.com/oakford.html

[9] Kenneth Ring and Evelyn Elsaesser-Valarino, Lessons from the Light: what we can learn from the near-death experience (Needham, MA: Moment Point Press, 2006), 157-8. Emphasis original. Sawyer’s own account of his life review, which does not include the incident related by Ring but does describe the review in terms of a similar triple perspective to that mentioned by Fanning, can be read at http://www.near-death.com/experiences/reincarnation03.html A further arresting life review not dissimilar to that of Howard Storm can be found in the case of another former atheist, Barbara Whitfield, http://www.aciste.org/index.php/integrationaccounts?id=71

[10] Ibid., 161-2. Emphasis original. Ring’s interpretation is close to that of British philosopher David Lorimer’s notion of ’empathetic resonance’, the conviction that the Golden Rule is not merely an ethical exhortation but an expression of the fundamental interconnectedness of all reality. See also Bruce Greyson, ‘Near-Death Experiences and Spirituality’ in Zygon, 41/2 (Summer 2006), 393-414:404. I have commented elsewhere on the way in which contemporary scientific work on mirror or ‘Gandhi’ neurons (V.S. Ramachandran) appears to be revealing that even in our corporeal existence we quite literally have the capacity to feel the pain of others. See Peter Bannister, ‘The Return of Spirit: Christian theology and consciousness research’, available online at www.peterjohnbannister.com/TheReturnofSpirit.pdf

[11] Huston Smith, ‘Intimations of Mortality’, 14.

[12] Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry, Evidence of the Afterlife: the Science of Near-Death Experiences (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 110.

[13] This is the suggestion made by Jason J. Braithwaite in the article ‘Towards a Cognitive Neuroscience of the Dying Brain. An in-depth analysis and critique of the survivalists’ neuroscience of near-death experience’ (Skeptic Magazine 21/2 (Summer 2008)).

[14] The choice of Bruckner for this illustration is deliberate; as the conductor Sergiu Celibidache remarked late in life,  “To him, time is different than it is to other composers. To a normal man, time is what comes after the beginning. To Bruckner, time is what comes after the end. All his apotheotical finals, the hope for another world, the hope of being saved, of being again baptised in light, it exists nowhere else in the same manner”. Quoted in http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.98.4.5/mto.98.4.5.james.html . Emphasis mine.

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Science and near-death experience: a gathering Storm?

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I have to admit that I am running late with this post. Nearly three months have now passed since I first touched on the subject of near-death experiences, mentioning in particular the remarkable story of former art professor turned United Church of Christ minister Howard Storm in connection with events he underwent in 1985 when visiting Paris together with his students from Northern Kentucky University. Before plunging into Storm’s story, I would however first like to say that there has been a reason for this hiatus (other than my indolence); in tackling the question of NDE accounts we are dealing with a topic which seems to be becoming a hotter potato with every month that passes, both at the popular and more academic level, so keeping pace with events is proving quite a challenge to my speed-reading skills as well as putting a strain on my budget for new books! Recent weeks have for example seen the appearance of two significant new ‘middle-brow’ publications on the subject – the thoughtful Dancing past the Dark by (theologically-trained) International Near-Death Association president emerita Nancy Evans Bush, and Brain Wars by Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard. A cogent extended essay placing NDE reports in the more general context of the fundamental challenge posed to reductionistic materialistic science by current consciousness research, Brain Wars sparked a furious polemical reaction from biologist and radically anti-religious science blogger PZ Myers when an extract from the book appeared on the much-read website www.salon.com .

In addition, near-death experiences were the focus of ‘Final Passages’,  the 2012 Bioethics Forum hosted by the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute in Madison, Wisconsin at the end of April, grouping together many of the leading researchers in the field. Speakers included figures such as Dr Raymond Moody, whose Life after Life effectively lit the touchpaper for discussion of the whole issue when first published in 1975, Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel and Dr Eben Alexander III, a neurosurgeon whose former reductionist view of the mind-brain relationship was radically altered by his own NDE during a coma in 2008. Dr Alexander has now joined the ranks of those who, like Beauregard, are openly calling for precisely the type of reconciliation between science and spirituality which figures such as PZ Myers seem determined to thwart at all costs. With professional credentials including a spell as associate professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School (1994-2001) and a list of scientific publications standing at 150+, Alexander can scarcely be dismissed as a typical ‘woo-monger’ (the favoured term of abuse on the part of the skeptical materialists regarding near-death experience); his forthcoming book to be published later this year by Simon & Schuster is awaited with considerable expectation.

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Could it just be that we are currently experiencing a dramatic, if hotly-contested, paradigm shift in the way that we consider the possibility of life after death and the nature of human consciousness more generally? It is certainly striking that growing scientific interest in the question of the near-death experience as more than a fringe concern seems to be paralleled at a popular level by the flood of NDE accounts in recent years both in book form and on film which have clearly gripped the general public. Of these perhaps the best-known examples of what is fast becoming a social phenomenon are Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (for which NDE researcher Dr Penny Sartori, one of the Bioethics Forum panelists, was a consultant) and the extraordinary children’s reports found in Colton and Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real, (still at n.3 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list after 78 weeks on the chart) and Alex/Kevin Malarkey’s The boy who came back from heaven.

If it seems that the American popular readership has already made up its mind as to the veracity of the two boys’ compelling stories – which interestingly have made next to no impact in the UK -, there has also predictably been no shortage of sniping from the skeptics, not least because their fathers, co-authors of the books in question, are both Christian ministry professionals (Todd Burpo being a Wesleyan Pastor, Kevin Malarkey a Christian therapist) and that their sons Colton and Alex had therefore already been familiarized with Biblical imagery from a very young age. The objection is therefore raised against Heaven is for Real and The boy who came back from heaven is that their descriptions of a life beyond this one are so heavily coloured by a pre-existing theological framework that they can hardly be taken seriously as anything more than sincere but deluded wish-fulfilment and the result of prior socialization. Whether this objection holds or not is of course a matter of opinion – I personally think not, for reasons that will become apparent as we proceed (although of course I can hardly plead neutrality) -, but I can certainly understand the skeptics’ argument.

It is here that arguably the most interesting NDE reports are those which, far from confirming the experiencer’s prior expectations shaped by a religious worldview, are radically counter-intuitive in nature and led to a drastic and enduring change of outlook as a result of the events in question. I have already mentioned Eben Alexander, (whose synaesthesic NDE account incidentally reads uncannily like the programme note for a work of Olivier Messiaen, as he claims that his experience of the transcendent was triggered by the perception of a melody in the form of colours) as clearly falling into this category. Howard Storm, whose My Descent into Death: a Second Chance at Life, which came to broad public attention when the bestselling author Anne Rice triggered its re-publication by Doubleday (and penned its foreword) in 2005, is another prime example. His is a story which definitely cannot be reduced to wish-fulfilment, for the simple reason that his experience in no way corresponded either to what he expected or hoped for (those who may wish to skip the summary of Storm’s NDE which follows below might like to read a representative précis of his account published in the British Catholic Herald this April). Although Howard Storm has now been a UCC pastor for two decades,[1] he was neither a Christian at the time of his NDE, nor a New Ager eagerly awaiting union with an all-embracing light or a transcendent experience of the oneness of all things. He was to all extents and purposes an atheist.

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Storm’s NDE occurred as he was lying on a bed in the Hôpital Cochin in Paris, where he had been rushed after a sudden perforation of his duodenum; he had the misfortune to arrive at Cochin at the weekend when medical staff were in short supply (as those acquainted with Parisian public hospitals will probably be aware), which meant that he was left untreated for several hours without even the administration of painkillers. His condition was so excruciating that by the time he realized that he was fading away, he welcomed what he assumed in his non-theistic world-view would be his imminent extinction:

‘I closed my eyes & relaxed & let go to die. There was no question in my mind that I could do it. It was real easy to do at that point. The doctors told me here that considering the surgeon’s report that I had a 5mm hole in the duodenum, without any treatment all day that my life-expectancy, like 5 hours was good, and so I was way beyond that. I felt like I was going to sleep, and I was real glad of it and I knew that what would happen next would be that forever and ever I would no longer have a thought or an existence or anything else. I knew that to be true, absolutely. During this entire day the idea of praying or a life after death or anything never even crossed my mind; it wasn’t a possibility, and I drifted into darkness, just kind of like going into a sleep; and it felt wonderful.'[2]

That wonderful feeling turned out to be extremely short-lived, however; to Howard Storm’s shock he did not simply fade to black but found himself (as is extremely common in NDE accounts) painlessly contemplating his own sick body from outside, together with people in the hospital who were oblivious of him despite his attempts to communicate with them. It is at this point that Storm’s report takes on a strange and disturbing tone, as a group of unknown figures dressed in hospital uniform then beckoned to Storm to follow them out through a door. Their voices were initially friendly, but as they led him away towards an unspecified dark location Storm gradually realized that he had been deceived into following them, as their numbers grew and they became increasingly malevolent. They then turned on him and proceeded to victimize him horribly for their own pleasure:

‘They began shouting and hurling insults at me, demanding that I hurry along. The more miserable I became, the more enjoyment they derived from my distress.[…]These creatures were once human beings. The best way I can describe them is to think of the worst imaginable person stripped of every impulse of compassion […] I had no sense of there being any organization to the mayhem. They didn’t appear to be controlled or directed by anyone. Simply, they were a mob of beings driven by unbridled cruelty. […] Much that occurred was simply too gruesome and disturbing to recall. I’ve spent years trying to suppress a lot of it. After the experience, whenever I did remember those details, I would become traumatized.’[3]

In desperation and against his own metaphysical convictions, Storm began to pray an incoherent ‘jumble from the Twenty-third Psalm, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Lord’s Prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and “God Bless America,” and whatever other churchly sounding phrases came to mind.’ [4] This had the effect of infuriating Storm’s tormenters, who retreated; if this was of some relief to him it still left him with a sensation of utter loneliness, ‘a worm cast into the outer darkness’ in the ‘sewer of the universe’.

Curiously, he recognized the departing lynch mob as kindred spirits, in that they had exhibited towards him precisely the same kind of lack of compassion as he had demonstrated in his earthly life as a ‘dyed-in-the-wool cynic’, a misanthrope interested only in his career. The self-description in My Descent into Death provided by Storm with regard to his previous life is scarcely flattering:

‘Being an artist was a way to get what I wanted. You win eternal fame as an artist. They display your work in marble temples and worship it for thousands of years. I wanted to be famous for hundreds and thousands of years. People would read books about me and say, “Howard Storm, the great artist. […] I viewed people who were religious with contempt. I thought they believed in fairy tales because they couldn’t cope with the harsh reality of life. They had bought into a fantasy in order to justify their mediocrity. […] The rugged individualism that I had learned from my father, my schooling, and my American culture was my religion. Why would I need to believe in a higher power? Who would put the needs of others ahead of their own needs? You have to watch your back always. Life is every man for himself. The one who dies with the most toys wins. Compassion is for the weak.’[5]

Down in the existential sewer pipe, Storm in effect felt that he had reaped what he had sown during his earthly existence, and that his own nihilistic lifestyle had led to its logical conclusion; the only form of existence on offer to him in the penumbra would be to side with the mobsters:

‘I felt like a match whose flame had been spent and the ember was slowly dying away to nothing. Little strength was left to resist becoming a creature gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness. I wasn’t far from becoming like one of my own tormentors for all eternity.’[6]

Happily, as we shall see in the next instalment, this is not a story which ends in the cosmic basement.

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Jeroen Bosch, ‘Ascent of the Blessed’, from ‘Visions of the Hereafter’, between 1500 and 1504

Ducal Palace, Venice

  • Many versions of Rev. Howard Storm’s account are available on the internet, of which perhaps the most phenomenologically interesting are those made in the years immediately following Storm’s NDE (i.e. prior to his seminary training). Extensive audio from one of his 1987 presentations can be found at http://ndestories.org/howard-storm/ .

NOTES

[1] While it should be pointed out that NDE accounts are not easily subsumed under any one confessional framework, Howard Storm is certainly not the only near-death experiencer to have become an ordained minister following an NDE. Other much-publicized cases include that of neuropathologist George Rodonaia, who became an Eastern Orthodox priest , and Ian McCormack, whose NDE was induced by being stung by five box jellyfish while diving off the coast of Mauritius.

[2] http://restoredgospelevidences.blogspot.fr/2011/10/howards-storms-near-death-experience.html This quotation is taken from a transcript made in 1988 by the NDE Research Institute in Fort Thomas, KY on the basis of oral presentations by Howard Storm. The fact that this scanned transcript is embedded on a Mormon website is irrelevant to the present inquiry.

[3] Howard Storm, My Descent into Death: a Second Chance at Life , with a foreword by Anne Rice (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 16-18.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 22-23.

[6] Ibid., 23.

Keith Ward: Beethoven, Brahms … and Descartes’ revenge

As things get increasingly serious during Holy Week, this is a time at which our thoughts inevitably turn (or at least ought to turn) to the Big Questions of religious belief, issues of life, death and ultimate meaning as we in our communities of faith reflect upon and re-live the momentous events in first-century Palestine that we regard as foundational for our very identity. Here at the American Church in Paris we have however also been exploring such Big Questions from a scientific angle in the context of a series of evenings supported by the Templeton Foundation’s Scientists in Congregations Ministry Intiative, focusing on the dialogue between Christian theology and contemporary science. These culminated last week with three stimulating lectures by Oxford philosopher Prof. Keith Ward (video now available by clicking here), the last of which also featured a lively round table discussion with Rev. George Hobson (Canon to the Bishop for Theological Education to the Anglican Diocese of Europe), the brilliant French polymath Jean Staune, and myself as in-house moderator.

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Keith Ward is one of Britain’s most prolific theological writers both at the academic and popular level, author of a spate of recent books including Big Questions in Science in Religion, The Philosopher and the Gospels: Jesus through the Lens of Philosophy, Is Religion Irrational? and More over Matter. One of the most vociferous opponents of the New Atheism and singularly unafraid of being targeted by irate bloggers sniping in online forums hosted by the British press, Ward’s work is both consistently creative, uncommonly lucid and – something of a rarity for a professional philosopher – frequently highly entertaining.  Undaunted by current philosophical fads, he seems to have made a speciality of arguing, highly cogently if also often provocatively, for the rehabilitation of unfashionable figures from the classical philosophical tradition (Plato/Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel) and positions regarded by many as defunct. Perhaps the most counter-cultural of these is Ward’s commitment to philosophical Idealism, set out extensively in his More than Matter: What Humans Really Are, in which he contends that mind/consciousness, not materiality, is the ultimate metaphysical reality, and that the dimension of our existence linked with subjective experience (the inner life of thought, feeling, memory, notions of value and purpose) is not simply to be dismissed as an illusion generated by electrical activity in our brains. Here, Ward openly affirms his alignment with that most reviled of philosophical currents – Cartesian dualism:

‘Dualism, the original sin of Descartes, is not yet dead. Dualists can be found hiding in the philosophical undergrowth, slightly cowed perhaps, but still defiant. The heart of dualism, in the sense relevant to this discussion, is that mind and matter are two distinct sorts of thing. Minds do not exist in space, whereas matter is defined in terms of its location and extent in space. Minds think, feel, and perceive, and matter does not.'[1]

Some initial qualifications are perhaps in order here. Ward is not proposing a wholescale return to Descartes; you will not, for example, find him endorsing the French philosopher’s now infamous statement in Discours de la méthode that the goal of natural science is to make men[sic] ‘masters and possessors of nature’ [maîtres et possesseurs de la nature], which, as Jürgen Moltmann and others have shown, is an illegitimate extension of dualism which has had disastrous results in terms of the exploitation of the natural realm.[2] Ward is not proposing a ‘pure’ duality which would divorce mind and body entirely, nor is he arguing for a strict conceptual separation of human beings from a nature devoid of all subjectivity; rather, not unlike Teilhard de Chardin and Alfred North Whitehead, he espouses what he calls ‘dual-aspect idealism’. This is the idea that the material processes of evolution are the outworking of the potentialities of Mind which gives them their directionality: events have both an ‘outward physical appearance ‘ and an ‘inner aspect’ which is their ‘causal driving force’, leading them towards the realization of ‘consciously created and appreciated values’.[3]

‘The inner reality exists, but it could not exist fully and properly as it does without the outer expression. Materialism and idealism both err if they deny any existence to mind or to matter. Both must go together, but for an idealist the driving force of the whole process is in the end the mind-like, the conscious and the intentional, with its values and purposes. It is to that existence that the material cosmos points, and in which it finds the fulfilment of its inherent potentialities.'[4]

Keith-Ward-more-than-matter-cover

In this scheme, the world cannot be viewed as a mere aggregation of its material properties; any account of reality also needs to make room for the non-material considerations that make our conscious human experience meaningful. To illustrate this Ward uses two intriguing musical examples which are worth quoting; the first refers to the fact that music is not only sound in the sense of physical waves but heard sound – it is the element of human perception which allows us to talk about artistic beauty. Here, Ward insists, the factor of human consciousness leads us inevitably into the realm of non-physical emergent properties, an example of which might be a chord played by the orchestra in a Beethoven symphony. The only ‘physical stuff’ is ‘waves at a specific frequency whose physical properties can be specified accurately.[..] But when those waves hit the ear and get transmitted to the appropriate area of the brain, hey presto, a beautiful sound appears.'[5]

Conscious minds, Ward contends, perceive properties such as ‘specific timbre, pitch, and emotional tone’, which are meaningless terms in relation to unheard sound waves but are ‘non-physical’ properties which are intrinsically linked to the interaction of sound waves with our brains:

‘We say that some sounds are beautiful. But what we mean is that we experience them as beautiful. This new property of heard sound, with a pleasing or displeasing character, is not some new behavioural principle that applies to complex arrangements of fundamental particles, whether or not they are being perceived. It is an actual occurrent feeling of something being experienced as emotionally resonant.'[6]

In other words, Ward is arguing that aesthetic experience has a non-physical dimension; his contention might be made still more persuasive by adding that in the case of Beethoven’s final period, the mental element is even stronger, given that the composer’s deafness meant that sound waves played no part in the generation of the music. It can naturally be asserted that Beethoven’s aesthetic sense could not have arisen in the first place without his experience of such physical waves, but their subsequent internal memorization was such that music could be generated in the composer’s mind once the physical component of sound had become inaccessible to him.

Secondly, musical composition consists of endowing the physical properties of sound with structure and purpose in terms of the ordering of successive events, a factor that physics alone cannot explain. Ward illustrates this point by means of the musical example of a Brahms symphony; whilst admitting that such a work ‘can be fully expressed in the physical structure of a compact disc’ as binary digits, it is clear that the symphony is not reducible to numbers. As Keith Ward puts it, ‘a recital of the string of binary digits that make up the compact disc would not sound as attractive as hearing the symphony. Brahms was not trying to write strings of binary digits. He was trying to write beautiful music.'[7] This contrast between the symphony as an aesthetic sounding reality and its reduction to a mathematical pattern is seen by Ward as analogical to the irreducibility of our mental processes to neuronal firing. There is more to thinking than a succession of brain states, as the latter – if what we are talking about is essentially a combination of ‘on-off’ binary patterns, however complex – cannot on their own spontaneously generate, say, a logical argument.

To continue with Ward’s analogy, the idea that a coherent symphony could simply arise through a random self-assembly of ‘1’s and ‘0’s seems obviously ridiculous (here I might add that John Cage might well disagree, but he’s not Brahms): ‘If I suggest that the binary strings just organize themselves without even having any conception of what music is, and by chance they happen to play a Brahms symphony, it would be hard to take me seriously.’  The form of a symphony as a coherent structure implies a basis in artistic purpose. Ward compares this with what goes on in our brains if we try to solve an equation: the mental acts involved ‘can be translated into physical brain states, but it is the purposefully directed acts that decide the order in which brain states occur. Theydo not just put themselves into a certain order, which miraculously makes me argue in a correct deductive way.’ Just as the string of digits on a CD needs a CD-player to translate it back into a Brahms symphony, the neuronal firings ‘then have to be translated back into mathematical symbols, understood by a human mind to be an argument with premises and a conclusion.’ This is evidently something that the neurons on their own cannot achieve without the intervention of higher-order structuring:

‘The brain’s operations are all purely physical, but its structure, the ordering of its successive states in a logical argument, and the understanding that what has gone on is an argument, and not just a succession of physical states, are all non-physical.'[8]

Ward’s central contention, therefore, is that minds really do exist and cannot be reduced to their material substrate of the brain considered as ‘an electrochemically active lump of porridge'[9] (although mental activity is of course intimately correlated with the stirring of this sticky mixture). Clearly this is a broadside not only against his own teacher Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind (a work which famously critiqued the ‘Cartesian myth’ of a ‘ghost in the machine’ in its attack on mind-body dualism), but against scientific materialism as represented by another of Ryle’s pupils, Daniel Dennett. So although only the final pages of More than Matter deal with overtly religious issues, the whole book should be seen against the backdrop of Ward’s more general concern to provide a rational Christian riposte to the reductionist agenda of the New Atheism. Here the humanities have a key role to play, the existence of art being bound up with questions of beauty and value which strike us as absolutely real but which cannot be explained away by purely physical accounts of reality. The fact that we consider them not to be wholly arbitrary would seem to be a strong pointer to their rootedness in purposeful creativity as an aspect of their ultimate metaphysical foundation:

‘the arts can be seen as participation in the creativity of the cosmos, in a power beyond the finite self that yet works through and can heighten the insights and skills of artistic endeavour. Great works of art, music, and literature will be disclosive of what George Steiner calls “real presence”, communications of transcendent mind as perceived by the immanent and embodied minds of human beings.'[10]

Jean-Staune

Jean Staune

In its stress on the non-physical aspect of reality, Ward’s thought converges strongly with that of Jean Staune (who himself gave an electrifying presentation in our series on March 8th), another prolific thinker no less courageously provocative than his Oxford counterpart, whose recent books Au-delà de Darwin, Notre existence a-t-elle un sens and La Science en Otage have generated considerable debate within France. Staune’s Platonic arguments for the existence of dimensions of reality not reducible to space-time, matter and energy in some respects resemble those of Ward – whose seminal Big Questions in Science and Religion was translated into French under Staune’s guidance – , but are primarily drawn from mathematics and experimental science rather than philosophical reasoning. Jean Staune’s current work, like Ward’s, sees scientific materialism as an inadequate paradigm requiring correction in terms of an appreciation of the role of rationally comprehensible structure in a natural order which cannot reasonably be considered as purely random. Staune focuses particularly on the evidence for the part played by natural laws in evolutionary development which appear to provide natural selection with a set of constraints leading to the repeated appearance of archetypal structures in nature[11], as well as phenomena such as quantum entanglement[12] which suggest  forms of non-local causality operative in the universe for which our current understanding of the laws of physics is insufficient.

In his emphasis on the huge implications for science of acknowledging the existence of non-local causation in the natural world, Staune in turn holds much in common with the Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel, author of the recent Consciousness Beyond Life: the Science of the Near-Death Experience (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), which sold 100,000 copies in the first year of its publication in Dutch as Eindeloos Bewustzijn as well as being nominated in the Netherlands for Book of the Year in 2008. Like Staune and Ward, Van Lommel sets out a compelling case for a major revision of the dominant materialist scientific paradigm, having headed the first large-scale scientific study of near-death experiences (NDEs) to have its findings published in an internationally respected peer-reviewed journal (in a much-publicized article appearing in The Lancet in 2001 which is given much expanded treatment in Consciousness Beyond Life). Van Lommel is a pioneering researcher in a field which has hitherto been largely regarded as the preserve of devotees of parapsychology but which is rapidly moving into the scientific mainstream, being discussed at major gatherings such as the September 11, 2008 United Nations/Nour Foundation/Université de Montréal symposium, ‘Beyond the Mind-Body Problem: New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness’. The strength of the arguments building in favour of a serious scientific appraisal of near-death experience is such that many feel that NDE research will in due time sound the death-knell of a reductionist materialist approach to the question of human consciousness.

In essence, what Van Lommel is arguing, similarly to other near-death researchers such as Bruce Greyson (Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia), Kenneth Ring (Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Connecticut), Mario Beauregard (Neuroscience Research Center, Montreal University) and radiation oncologist Jeffrey Long, that there are compelling reasons to believe in the possibility of lucid consciousness on the part of persons in cardiac arrest whose electrical brain activity is recorded as totally flat by EEG measurement. If the considerable evidence put forward by Van Lommel receives the corroboration that many expect from current research programs such as Dr Sam Parnia’s AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study at the University of Southampton, then the case made out for the irreducibility of mind to brain – or, to use religious categories, the existence of the ‘soul’ – by Keith Ward will be at the very least hugely strengthened, and perhaps even conclusively demonstrated.

Pim-van-Lommel-cover

For the moment it must be said that the majority of the evidence in favour of taking near-death experiences seriously is based on personal testimony. However, as Greyson, Van Lommel and Long variously point out, this testimony frequently contains elements which are open to verification (information provided NDErs regarding objects or events perceived while unconscious, both in the vicinity of their body and away from it, or concerning the identity of deceased relatives of whose existence they had been unaware prior to the NDE). It is therefore a legitimate object of scientific inquiry and should not be dismissed as purely subjective and therefore impossible to evaluate. Furthermore, following Keith Ward’s line of reasoning in More than Matter, an acknowledgement that some aspects of human experience are by their very nature irreducibly subjective would suggest that testimony should not be rejected out of hand as an evidential category, especially when, as I hope to show, NDE reports are highly convergent across geographical, cultural and temporal boundaries.

If it is suggested that the striking similarities between NDE accounts is an indication that all NDErs are simply repeating a stereotyped narrative (primarily centred around an experience of the interconnectedness of all things and an encounter with a ‘Being of Light’ radiating unconditional level) which could be nothing more than a cultural constructn, it is perhaps worth paying special attention to those accounts whose character is strikingly counter-intuitive in terms of their lack of correspondence both to their author’s prior expectations or metaphysical convictions.  And it is at this point that we need to return to just one such counter-intuitive report: the remarkable and gripping NDE found in the book My Descent into Death: a Second Chance at Life by Howard Storm to which I alluded in my previous post ‘Eyeless in Paris’. But beware: this is certainly one case where the reader should be prepared for a wild ride …

In the meantime, here are some resources which those interested in the contemporary debate concerning the mind-body relationship may find helpful:

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NOTES

[1] Keith Ward, More than Matter: What Humans Really Are (Oxford: Lion, 2010), 112-113.

[2] ‘As long as the acquisition of power is the concern prompting the scientific search for knowledge, power will be the very mould in which the sciences are cast: power will be the actual form they take.[…]Moreover, through this method, the human being confronts nature from the outset and in principle as its ruler. He is no longer one member of the community of creation; he confronts creation as its lord and owner.[…] The Cartesian dualism of res cogitans and res extensa is the theory that prompts this modern process of differentiation between man and nature, and the purposes behind that process’ (Jürgen Moltmann, God and Creation: a New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993),  27).

[3] Keith Ward, More than Matter, 102-103.

[4] Ibid., 136.

[5] Ibid., 114.

[6] Ibid..

[7] Ibid., 144.

[8] Ibid., 145.

[9] Ibid..

[10] Ibid., 190.

[11] See Notre existence a-t-elle un sens and Au-delà de Darwin, passim.. Staune and Ward both draw on Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris’s pioneering work in the field of ‘evolutionary convergence’ (see Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: CUP, 2003)), the idea that the laws of nature provide evolutionary processes with directionality by steering them towards certain solutions such as the camera eye which arise repeatedly in evolutionary history in organisms in a way that cannot be entirely explained by their common ancestry.

[12] Staune’s Notre existence a-t-elle un sens originally contained a chapter on near-death experience which was subsequently not included out of a desire to restrict discussion to topics where the scientific evidence is uncontestable, which is not yet the case for NDE research. However, Staune’s text on the subject has been published (in French) on his website: http://www.staune.fr/Un-pas-de-l-autre-cote-de-la.html as a stimulus to further investigation.

Eyeless in Paris

One of the periodic delights of living in Paris is the experience of showing visitors around this sometimes infuriating but undoubtedly stunning city. As with any great metropolis, it is all too easy to be made oblivious to Paris’s exceptional cultural richness by the daily routine of what is classically termed métro-boulot-dodo. Until, that is, you find yourself sharing the sights with those who are not so blasé about this incredible location for lovers of history and art. So it was with a properly renewed sense of wonder that we returned home after visiting two of Paris’s most astounding locations with family guests from the other side of the Eurotunnel .

The first was the renovated Musée d’Orsay, perhaps the world’s most concentrated collection of epoch-making visual art from the period 1848-1914; for anyone who knows even a little about the history of painting there is a sense of sheer overload in being in an enclosed space with so many masterpieces of figures such as Corot, Manet, Monet, Dégas, Cézanne, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh …, any one of which would be the pièce de résistance in a lesser museum. It is not merely that the Orsay’s canvases are supremely beautiful in purely aesthetic terms, but also that each one carries rich human associations as a chronicle of the lived historical experience of an era. As the philosopher John D. Caputo (perhaps the foremost living Anglophone interpreter of what he terms the philosophical ‘witch-doctors’ of the Parisian rive gauche) likes to remark, something is ‘getting itself said’ through this art which goes beyond the purely personal vision of the artist.

To use another philosophical parallel, there is a sense when standing in front of the paintings in the Musée d’Orsay of what Jean-Luc Marion has famously called a ‘saturated phenomenon’, something which overwhelms our cognitive capacities by its excess, its sheer weight of what might be termed ‘radiance’ or ‘splendour’, to give a rough translation of the word Herrlichkeit which was so central to the thought of Jean-Luc Marion’s theological mentor Hans Urs von Balthasar.

For me perhaps the best exemplification of this in the Orsay is Van Gogh’s unforgettable Nuit étoilée sur le Rhône, painted in Arles in 1888, which makes an impact when seen in the museum which is quite different from anything that can be conveyed by a reproduction of the picture. The sheer intensity of what one might call Van Gogh’s ‘meta-colours’ and the unbelievable thickness of the paint create the impression of what the Welsh 17th century poet Henry Vaughan famously described in his Night as a ‘deep and dazzling darkness’ which is more than simply physical and which evokes something akin to a state of mystical consciousness.

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Vincent van Gogh ‘Nuit Etoilée sur le Rhône’, 1888

Our appreciation of a sense of the numinous within Van Gogh’s Provençal night sky is obviously bolstered by our biographical knowledge of the painter’s profound spirituality (which I already discussed in relation to Makoto Fujimura’s provocative reading of his other ‘Starry Night’ picture in my post ‘Fujimura’s Refracted Light’ ). Jean-Luc Marion’s notion of the ‘saturated phenomenon’ can however also be powerfully felt in wholly ‘secular’ pictures such as Monet’s light-drenched series of views of the Japanese bridge in the garden at Giverny. Interestingly, Marion himself, in his highly thought-provoking reflections on visual art published as La Croisée du visible, interprets Monet’s form of saturation in anti-metaphysical terms, as a reduction of painting to the data of immediate consciousness, excluding  any other ‘object’, i.e. subject-matter. This is most apparent in his reading of Monet’s studies of the façade of Rouen Cathedral, in which the object is evidently not the cathedral but the play of light itself as experienced by the painter:

‘The portal of Rouen Cathedral does not appear differently lit during the course of the same day; on the contrary, even at high noon, it never stops disappearing; and less so by dazzlement (éblouissement) than by virtue of being all too perfectly recorded. To talk of dazzlement implies that one is constantly aiming at an object and therefore regrets that the excess of light prohibits a clear view, but here it is not a matter of seeing, through the excess of light, the intended object of a cathedral. It is about receiving this light itself, as perceived, in the place of and instead of any illuminated objective.'[1]

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I can certainly understand Marion’s take on Monet’s Rouen series, in which it is additionally evident (a point so obvious that Marion does not even comment on it directly, although it reinforces his general interpretive line) that the whole spiritual significance of the Cathedral and the sculptures on its facade is of no interest to the painter whatsoever. Here the contrast between Monet and the symbolist school of French 19th century art is very striking in terms of the way in which the relationship between the visible and the invisible is approached; Marion defines impressionism’s fascination with light and shade as making the invisible (i.e. the medium of vision) visible at the expense of the object itself, which is effectively collapsed into the perception of the artist who is no longer trying to see anything ‘behind’ what is perceived by immediate consciousness. In other words, Marion claims that such painting does not point to anything beyond itself – Monet therefore both epitomizes and to some extent triggers modern art’s tendency to demolish any reference to a transcendent depth other than what is immediately perceptible. To this Marion opposes the Biblical and early Christian tradition of the icon, whose essence is to turn the viewer’s attention away from itself to its invisible prototype, the paradigmatic case being Christ as the eikon of God, the suffering servant of Isaiah 52-53 who allows himself to be disfigured in order to draw us to the Father.[2]

However, returning to Monet’s Japanese bridge, it could be argued that a somewhat different interpretation is also possible. In contrast to what are to my mind the predominantly technical, if impressive, explorations of the pointillists such as Seurat and Signac, Monet’s paintings should surely not be regarded as devoid of depth. I for one (albeit bringing my own world-view and prior experience with me to the Musée d’Orsay) would be more inclined to say that regardless of Monet’s own atheism, the saturation with light emanating from his canvases can strike the spectator as a powerful form of this-worldly transcendence endowed with its own sense of mystery and depth even if there is no reference to anything beyond an ‘immanent frame’, to use Charles Taylor’s useful term when discussing the historical process of secularization in Western culture. I can agree with Marion that the ‘medium of vision’ does take precedence over subject-matter, and symbolic reference is nowhere to be found, but there is still ‘dazzlement’ – as Marion himself admits – to the extent that light itself has been elevated to transcendent status. This is not a simple case of ‘disenchantment’, not a full-blown attack on transcendence per se such as can be found, say, in Manet’s coldly lit Olympia (as I discussed in relation to Jacques Ellul’s insightful interpretation of Manet in The Empire of Non-Sense ).[3]

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Claude Monet, ‘Le Bassin aux Nymphéas’ (Princeton University Art Museum)

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This concept of dazzlement/éblouissement , explored theologically in a manner very similar to that of Marion, also appears in the writings of the composer Olivier Messiaen. In a lecture given in Notre-Dame de Paris in December 1977 he uses it to convey his intuition of a link between colour and religious experience, referring to the second mythical location which we visited last weekend, the Sainte Chapelle built by Louis IX in the 13th century, of which I highly recommend taking a virtual tour that you can access by clicking here . Messiaen first encountered its iridescent windows when he was 10 years old, an experience which he describes as foundational –

‘What is going on in the stained glass of Bourges [Cathedral], the great windows of Chartres, in the rose windows of Notre-Dame de Paris and in the marvelous, incomparable stained-glass of the Sainte Chapelle? Firstly there is a host of figures, large and small, telling us the life of Christ, of the Blessed Virgin, the Prophets and the Saints: a sort of catechism in images. This catechism is enclosed in circles, heraldic shields, trefois; it obeys colour symbolism, it contrasts, superimposes, decorates, teaches, with a thousand intentions and a thousand details. Well, from far away, without binoculars, without ladders, without anything to aid our weak eyes, we see nothing: just a totally blue, green or purple stained-glass window. We don’t understand, we are dazzled.

‘God dazzles us with an excess of Truth’, says St Thomas Aquinas.'[4]

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Stained-glass, Sainte-Chapelle

Messiaen goes so far as to describe his experience of dazzlement, which he closely links to the phenomenon of synaesthesia (the simultaneous perception of sound and colour), as a ‘breakthrough towards the beyond’ (‘percée vers l’au-delà’). The humbling of our senses and our understanding that we feel in the presence of overwhelming sensory beauty opens us, Messiaen contends, to the transcendent reality of God:

‘All these forms of dazzlement are a great lesson. They show us that God is above words, thoughts, concepts, above our earth and our sun, above the thousands of stars around us, above and outside time and space, all these things which are as it were attached to Him. […] And when musical painting, coloured music, sound-colour [le son-couleur] magnify him through dazzlement, they participate in the beautiful praise of the Gloria, saying to God and Christ: “You alone are Holy, You alone are the Most High!” On inaccessible heights. In so doing, they help us to live better, better to prepare our death, better to prepare our resurrection from the dead and the new life which awaits us. They are an excellent “passage-way”, an excellent “prelude” to the unsayable and the invisible.'[5]

Messiaen’s lecture concludes by an affirmation of hope in the Beatific Vision in the risen life, which will be ‘a perpetual dazzlement, an eternal music of colours, an eternal colour of musics’.[6]

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Eight years after Messiaen made his remarks, an art professor named Howard Storm was visiting Paris with a group of his students from Northern Kentucky University. An atheist for whom the only contact with spirituality was his own artistic experience of the mysterious variability of ‘inspiration’ from one day to the next, he would later recall finding himself strangely overcome with emotion on seeing both the Sainte Chapelle and the Monet water-lilies in the Orangerie of the Tuileries gardens. However, on that 1985 trip Howard Storm would unexpectedly find himself undergoing a life-changing liminal experience (recounted in his book My Descent into Death: a Second Chance at Life) which, as we will see in the next portion of this post, would not only provide him with a stunning personal confirmation of Messiaen’s words in Notre-Dame de Paris concerning the ‘eternal music of colours’, but which is now regarded by many as one of the most dramatic near-death experiences in modern times …

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NOTES

[1] Jean-Luc Marion, La Croisée du Visible (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996), 32. Translation mine.

[2] ‘The question can be formulated as follows: where, originally, can an image be found which divests itself of its own visibility in order to let another gaze break through it? The answer is clear: the Servant of Yahweh allows himself literally to be disfigured (to lose the visible splendour of his own face) in order to do the will of God (which only appears in his actions). The Servant sacrifices his face – he allows his ‘image’ to be unmade: ‘there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured … his form marred beyond human likeness’ (Isaiah 52:14; cf. Psalm 22:7). By effacing all glory from his own face to the point of obscuring his very humanity, the Servant allows nothing to be seen of him other than his acts, the latter resulting from obedience to the will of God and thus allowing it to be made manifest’ (ibid., 109. Translation mine).le

[3] The closest musical parallel to Monet in this respect is perhaps not Debussy, whose frequent association with ‘impressionism’ is misleading to the extent that it obscures his alignment with symbolist currents (particularly evident in Pelléas et Mélisande), but Frederick Delius, who lived in the French village of Grez-sur-Loing near Fontainebleau from 1897 to 1934 together with his German painter wife Jelka. Notoriously opposed to Christianity and an avowed disciple of Nietzsche, Delius’s music is provocatively anti-theistic but remains ‘spiritual’ in a similar fashion to the ‘transcendentalism’ of figures such as Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass provided the text for Delius’s haunting Sea Drift (1903-4).

[4] Olivier Messiaen, Conférence de Notre-Dame (Paris: Leduc, 1978), 12.  Translation mine.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 15.

Monet La Cathédrale de Rouen Le Portail et la tour Saint-Romain plein soleil