by Nancy Evans Bush, MA

My own favorite way of thinking about near-death experiences is based on the Judeo-Christian idea of God at work in history. (Readers who are uncomfortable with God-talk have only to go along, for the moment, with the idea of this particular model. The objective is not to assent to a definition or set of facts, but to see the underlying pattern.)

In this view, foundational to Hebrew Scripture, history is not what people do; history is the sum total of the ways in which the Holy, the Most High, acts in the world. And, because this model has, in my mind, a lot in common with a famous television series, I call it the model of the Star Trek God.

Every week, the starship Enterprise flew to a different galaxy, and every galaxy offered a unique and sometimes outlandish species of inhabitant. But—did you ever notice?—on every galaxy we visited on United States television, the life forms all spoke English.

Similarly, the God of this model works in history by being present in whatever ways the people of a particular time will understand. According to legend, and biblical record, and Homer—and, considerably more recently, Julian James in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind—heroic individuals of ancient times commonly got to be that way because they were following the commands of the voice of a god speaking to them directly. These stories poke like arrowheads out of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Greek myths. We find them in the oldest sections of the Bible and in other stories that date from the Bronze Age and perhaps even earlier. So, for example, Abraham, prospering in the city of Ur, hears the voice of God telling him to pack up his considerable household and walk 1,400 miles to a place he doesn’t even know; and Abraham becomes the Patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam because he promptly obliges.

In those olden times, heroes and patriarchs heard, obeyed, acted, and then explained to everybody else what was going on—and the people paid at least some degree of attention because they weren’t put off by that sort of revelation. In time, those individual revelations became the founding stories of holy places and temples; in the monotheistic traditions, they became the ancient heart of the Bible and the Koran. Whatever form the experiences took, the messages have come down through thousands of years:

The Sacred is in your midst. Pay attention. Love what is holy. Care for each other and for the world. Be just and merciful.

Centuries went by, and the voices of God were no longer heard so directly. In their place came prophets, who had remarkable visions or understood the meaning of dreams, experiences in which they recognized a mandate from the sacred and told the people:

The Sacred is in your midst. Pay attention. Love what is holy. Care for each other and for the world. Be just and merciful.

What happens today to a person who sees visions or hears the voice of God? We have no cultural acceptance for wandering prophets, and the language of patriarchs is not our own; we refer them for psychiatric care. Prophets inhabit our homeless shelters. In this high-tech age, we are comfortable with journalism, not poetry or revelation. We give to science the place once held by religion as the doorway to ultimate truth. But oh, the wonderfully comical, paradoxical, mysterious and hilarious ways of the universal sacred! The Most High at work in history—what I have called the Star Trek God—always speaks our language.

Our scientifically-minded and intellectually secular culture, quick to dismiss religion as outmoded, still cautiously acknowledges that “funny stuff” can happen around one fragment of personal reality. That fragment is associated with death. And in 1975 a young physician named Raymond Moody published a small book about accounts he had heard, stories of what he called “near-death experiences.” And because he had a scientific education and made no alarming religious claims about the stories, his book was not only socially acceptable but downright fascinating, and the media picked up the stories.

It is a further curiosity that for many people whose accounts have been reported, their near-death experience occurred, like those of old, in places of awe and reverence, attended by the esoteric rituals of high priests. The difference is that today’s rituals are medical, the priests are most likely physicians, and our temples carry names like University Hospital. It is also worth remembering that the prophets and heroines of the past began, like today’s experiencers, as ordinary people going about the business of their lives until they were interrupted by the transcendent—and that their lives were just as disrupted.

And so it is that in this scientific culture we have been enabled to hear the stories of tens of thousands of our own Abrahams and Miriams and Sauls: the ordinary people who have had NDEs and believe they have learned something true in them. They give us the message of their experiences:

The Sacred is in your midst. Pay attention. Love what is holy. Care for each other and for the world. Be just and merciful.

In its essence, the message has not changed since the Bronze Age. How can one not be awed? And—all those long, solemn philosophies later, and after all the learned debate or scoffing—how can one not burst with delight at the sheer humor of it?

Baskets of Meanings

I believe my model of “Star Trek God” is true, although it need not be literal fact. Like all myths, it is true because it is a way of describing a pattern, of making a workable model of something too big to grasp.

In this sense, all religious stories are like baskets in which we carry mysteries so they can be transmitted across generations. Over time, as history unfolds, understandings and interpretations shift. Stories originally told around Bronze and Iron Age hearths move into the Middle Ages, and on into the Age of Enlightenment, the Gilded Age, and now the Nuclear Age and New Age. The same stories are heard by different ears in different times and languages, and are understood from vastly different world views.

It’s not the fault of the ancient stories themselves that we, today, try to read them like newspaper accounts; it’s not a weakness in the narrative itself that leads us to scoff when we find a plot line factually unbelievable. The weakness is our own, because we insist that the stories be something other than what they are. Deep stories lead double lives: one life on the surface and another moving in the shadows underneath. These stories are, in my metaphor, ‘baskets of meaning,’ carrying simple narratives that point to a deeper reality beneath the stories themselves. And so this story basket continues, moving toward deeper meaning.